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The Montado

 

Cork oak forest © by APCOR Cork oak forest © by APCOR

Like the vineyards of the Douro Valley or the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, cork oak forests are a very specific, delicately-balanced ecosystem and persist only in the Mediterranean basin (Algeria and Morocco) and particularly in the southern regions of the Iberian Peninsula influenced by the Atlantic such as Portugal, which is proud to have the largest area of cork oak forest in the world (730 thousand hectares, representing 33% of the world total). Considered a national heritage, cork oak forests have been legally protected for centuries (Decree-Law 169/2001). The trees may not be cut down and incentives are available for the planting and management of cork oak forests. This initiative, pioneered by Portugal, was clearly a good decision, since the harvesting of cork to manufacture cork stoppers has become an industry of great economic importance and Portugal has become the main international cork exporter.

Cork oak forest world wide © by APCOR

The Portuguese Montado (Cork Oak Forest)

Portuguese Montado © by APCOR Portuguese Montado © by APCOR

In Portugal, cork oak forests represent around 21% of the total forested area and are responsible for the production of more than 50% of cork consumed throughout the world. Dominated by the Quercus species, cork oak forests have large areas of holm oak (Quercus rotundifolia), small areas of Pyrenean oak (Quercus pyrenaica) and, above all, cork oaks (Quercus suber L). Of all the flora in the cork oak forests, the cork oak is the most numerous species and can be found throughout the country, from the Minho in the north to the Algarve in the south, except in the harshest areas of Trás-os-Montes and the coldest hilltops and slopes of north Portugal. There are also small woods that are considered ecological reserves, such as those in the Gerês and Bornes mountains, and also in the Estrela, Marão, Lousã, Gardunha and Caramulo mountains.

Portuguese Montado © by APCOR

However, cork oaks are most commonly associated with the landscape of the Alentejo, where they indeed grow on a large scale. Due to the low population density of this region, their survival has been easier, though they suffered losses during the many wars that marked the expansion and affirmation of the Portuguese territory over seven centuries. The cork oak only began to receive the respect it deserves and demands as one of the most characteristic trees in Portugal from the 18th century onwards, when cork began to be harvested on an industrial scale. It was during that period that selective thinning and low density cultivation techniques were introduced to make use of the ground for farming. Thanks to these initiatives, at the end of the 19th century, the Portuguese cork oak forests were considered the best kept in the world. 

 

Natural Beauty

Leafy and imposing trees, cork oaks can grow up to a height of 82 feet and live for up to three hundred years, continuously serving the local populations, who periodically strip their special bark. This unique bark protects them both from the coldest winters and from the frequent fires that mark the hot dry summers, characteristic of the Mediterranean regions. It is this plant tissue, which continues to surprise the scientific community with its multifaceted qualities, that protects the vital parts of the tree from fire, ensuring its renewal, over a life cycle that crosses generations and ensures environmental sustainability, all harvests (or strippings) being carried out by hand and with great care so as to prevent any damage to the cork oak or to the surrounding environment. This tree has such a capacity for regeneration that even without chemical herbicides, fertilizers or irrigation, during the nine years between each harvest, the bark regrows, ready for the new cork harvest.

Cork Oak Forest © by APCOR

In these forests of rare beauty, people and animals live together peacefully, as they have ever since people first realised how much the cork oak had to offer them besides cork. People still hunt in the forest, and collect honey from its hives, the mushrooms that grow abundantly at the foot of the oak trees, firewood to burn and its fruit, acorns, to feed their animals. It is also the increase in the planting of cork oaks that has prevented desertification in southern Portugal, a dry, arid region with sandy soils, since it reduces soil erosion and provides a livelihood for local populations.

 “Plant a cork oak for your grandchildren”. An old but wise popular saying that parents still pass down to their children. The country people know that their future and the future of their descendants are dependent not only on the harvesting of cork, but also on maintaining the amazingly rich environmental biodiversity of the cork forests and even the balance of the climate itself. Besides their capacity to produce oxygen, a characteristic common to all trees, cork oaks have a unique cell structure that enables them to retain carbon dioxide, which is the principle cause of global warming.