Portuguese Cork Forests: How to Preserve These Biodiversity Hotspots
If you’ve ever taken a road trip through Portugal, you’ve likely noticed these half-naked trees that sprinkle the landscape. An emblem of Portuguese heritage, the cork tree serves as a sort of geographical “dropped-pin,” letting you know exactly where you are on the planet.
Cork trees are native to the Mediterranean basin, but Portugal is home to the world’s largest collection of cork trees (including the oldest living cork tree on Earth!). As the National Tree, the cork oak is considered a protected species in Portugal.
But beyond their deep roots in Portuguese culture, the cork trees are a key part of the nation’s natural ecosystems. In this article, we’ll explore the ecological significance of the cork oak, and how we as consumers can help to preserve them.
Portuguese Cork Forests: A Biodiversity Hotspot
Cork forests (Montados in Portuguese) are renowned for their unique biodiversity, with a wide range of plant and animal species that have adapted to the cork oak ecosystem over thousands of years. In fact, they are considered one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, alongside places such as the Amazon and the African Savana.
These forests cover over 730,000 hectares in Portugal and are mainly located in the Alentejo and Algarve regions of the country.
Cork oak trees (Quercus suber) are the dominant species in these forests, and their bark is harvested every nine years to produce cork, a versatile and sustainable material used for a variety of products, including wine bottle stoppers, flooring, insulation, and yoga mats.
A Home for Many Rare and Endangered Species
The cork oak forests are home to a diverse array of animal species, including many that are rare or endangered.
One of the most iconic animals found in these forests is the Iberian lynx.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the Iberian lynx is the most endangered feline species on the planet. In 2002, there were less than 100 Iberian lynx left in the wild. Fortunately, due to conservation efforts, these numbers are recovering. As of 2022, there were over 1,000 wild Iberian lynx throughout Portugal and Spain.
Another important mammal found in the cork oak forests is the Iberian black pig, a species that is virtually synonymous with Portuguese and Spanish culture. The black pigs graze exclusively on the acorns of the Portuguese oak tree (which a leg of Black Pig Ham can cost north of €1,000 EUR!).
Image: Porco Preto Alentejano
The forests are also home to over 160 bird species, such as the Spanish imperial eagle, the woodlark, the tawny owl, and 24 reptile species, including our beloved gecko.
On a smaller scale, cork oak forests are important for supporting insect biodiversity. Many insects are dependent on cork oak trees for their survival, and some are even specialized to live only on the cork oak tree. One such insect is the cork oak borer, which feeds on the bark of the cork oak tree and plays a crucial role in the natural regeneration of the cork oak forest.
Cork Trees Mitigate Climate Change
Not only do cork oaks serve as a structural habitat for many native flora and fauna, but their unique properties help to protect its ecosystems at large.
First, cork oak forests are crucial for maintaining soil health and preventing erosion. The thick layer of cork that covers the tree trunk protects the soil from erosion and helps to maintain its fertility. In addition, the leaves and other plant debris that fall to the forest floor decompose and add organic matter to the soil, improving its structure and nutrient content. This makes the soil more resistant to erosion and helps to prevent the loss of valuable topsoil.
Second, cork bark is naturally fire retardant. With its hot and dry climate, Portugal is prone to wildfires. However, cork trees help to protect their forest, their local inhabitants, and dependent communities, from these fires during the high-risk months.
Finally, cork oak forests play an important role in mitigating climate change. The cork oak tree is a carbon sink, meaning that it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in its wood and bark. The cork oak forest is therefore an important tool for mitigating climate change, as it helps to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in a natural, sustainable way. According to Amorim Cork Composites, Portugal’s largest cork manufacturer, cork oak forest can sequester up to 73 tons of CO2 for each ton of cork produced.
Supporting the Portuguese Cork Industry Helps Preserve the Cork Forests
Cork is a fully renewable resource, as only the outer layer of bark is harvested in a highly-skilled process that does not harm the tree. However, this process can only be done every nine years. Furthermore, the cork tree can only be harvested once it’s at least 25 years old, which means that planting a cork tree is actually an investment for the future. So, despite being renewable, there is a limited supply of the material, making it highly valuable.
Additionally, as the world’s largest producer of cork, cork oak forests are important for the economy of Portugal, employing over 12,000 people. For all these reasons, the incentives to protect the cork forests are very high.
With a re-emerging interest in cork products, like yoga mats, cork production in Portugal is now more sustainable than ever before. This increase in demand from the market is encouraging farmers to employ responsible forest management practices that ensure the long-term health of the cork oak forests. This includes carefully managing the harvesting of cork bark to ensure that the trees are not damaged and can continue to produce cork for generations to come.
Explore how our cork products are made, from harvesting to manufacturing, here.
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