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Plieninger, T., L. Flinzberger, M. Hetman, I. Horstmannshoff, M. Reinhard-Kolempas, E. Topp, G. Moreno, and L. Huntsinger. 2021.
Dehesas as high nature value farming systems: a social-ecological synthesis of drivers, pressures, state, impacts, and responses.
Ecology and Society 26(3):23. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-12647-260323
Synthesis, part of a Special Feature on High Nature Value Farming Systems in Europe
Dehesas as high nature value farming systems: a social-ecological synthesis
of drivers, pressures, state, impacts, and responses
Tobias Plieninger 1,2, Lukas Flinzberger 1, Maria Hetman 2, Imke Horstmannshoff 2, Marilena Reinhard-Kolempas 2, Emmeline Topp 2,
Gerardo Moreno 3 and Lynn Huntsinger 4
ABSTRACT. Dehesas and montados are Mediterranean agroforestry systems characterized by scattered oak trees with an understory
grazed extensively by livestock and, in some cases, periodically cropped. A long history of traditional management practices has created
an open woodland widely recognized for rich biodiversity and multiple ecosystem services. Concerns about challenges to their long-
term viability have motivated many disparate scientific studies in recent decades. We provide a synthesis of this growing body of
international literature, focusing on the links between land use and management practices, biodiversity, and policy, from a “high nature
value farming systems” perspective. The present review comprises 128 empirical studies carried out in Spain and Portugal. Conservation
trends were assessed according to categories adapted from the DPSIR (Drivers - Pressures - State - Impacts - Responses) framework.
Socio-cultural factors, economic dynamics, and agricultural policies were found to be key drivers of change, resulting in intensification
of livestock production and land use simplification, among other effects. Insufficient tree regeneration and a broad range of other
factors were identified as pressures that have often negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services, moving the system away
from its archetypical ecological state. A variety of management and policy responses were suggested, ranging from specific conservation
techniques to landscape-level initiatives. Ecosystem components and management practices were typically studied separately, and
mainly from an ecological science perspective, while inter- and transdisciplinary approaches including examination of the role of people
were less common. This points to a need to move from single-topic to landscape-level approaches with a broader integration of different
disciplines and perspectives.
Key Words: agricultural landscapes; agroforestry; Common Agricultural Policy; DPSIR framework; HNV farming; montados;
Worldwide, but notably in densely settled Europe with its long
agricultural history, a substantial part of biodiversity depends on
farming systems of “high nature value” (HNV farming systems)
that comprise multiple grassland, woodland, and cropland types
(Strohbach et al. 2015, Moran et al. 2021). HNV farming systems
frequently go hand in hand with a deep-rooted history of land
use and practices that have shaped and maintained semi-natural
habitats of exceptional biodiversity (Raatikainen and Barron
2017, Palacín and Alonso 2018). One such system commonly
considered to be HNV farming is the oak-based agroforestry of
the Iberian Peninsula, known as dehesas in Spain and montados
in Portugal (Pinto-Correia et al. 2018).
HNV farming systems are joint production or land-sharing
systems, simultaneously providing two fundamentally different
kinds of goods: market goods such as feed, food, and fiber, and
non-market ecosystem services of value to society, such as
biodiversity or scenery (Wossink and Swinton 2007). Because they
are mostly restricted to lands with natural, social, or economic
constraints to agricultural production (Lomba et al. 2020, Moran
et al. 2021), high nature value farming enterprises often cannot
compete with more intensive systems. In addition, most of the
value of the public goods provided is difficult for the landowner
to capture. As a consequence, many farmers across the European
Union are under pressure to either intensify or abandon high
nature value farming practices and systems, including dehesas
and montados (Plieninger and Bieling 2013). Societal awareness
of the public goods delivered by HNV farming is rising, and some
policy support options have been developed (Lomba et al. 2020).
However, a recent European EIP-AGRI expert report on HNV
farming concluded that these efforts have so far not halted the
decline in these systems and the loss of their associated
biodiversity (European Commission 2016). Long-term
monitoring data for globally threatened bird species in
Mediterranean agroecosystems point to a similar trajectory
(Palacín and Alonso 2018).
Dehesa and montado farms typically integrate extensive
production of various combinations of cattle, sheep, goats, and
pigs, with forest management and, in some cases, ancillary
cropping. For simplicity they are all termed dehesas in this study.
Major crops include grass and browse for livestock, acorns for
swine feed, and cork. Other products may include game, firewood,
wild plants, and mushrooms. Dehesas generally consist of
privately owned farms of a few hundred hectares in size
(Plieninger et al. 2004), although common and public forms of
ownership exist. Central to the dehesa system are oak stands of
different ages or in different management phases that are managed
to be open enough to maintain the grass understory (Urbano
2010). Extending across 3.1 million hectares in the southwestern
Iberian Peninsula (Moreno and Pulido 2009), dehesas form
Europe’s largest regional HNV farming system. The dehesa
system is renowned for the complementarity of pastoral,
agricultural, and forestry components. Characteristics of the
system include high resource use efficiency, reliance on natural
processes, and low dependency on external inputs (Rolo et al.
2016). Dehesas have also generated substantial interest because
1Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, University of Göttingen, 2Faculty of Organic Agricultural Sciences, University of
Kassel, 3Institute for Dehesa Research (INDEHESA), Forestry School, Plasencia, University of Extremadura, 4Department of Environmental
Science, Policy, & Management, University of California - Berkeley
Ecology and Society 26(3): 23
of the ecosystem services provided, including carbon storage,
wildfire protection, aesthetic values, recreation, ecotourism, and
sense of place (Garrido et al. 2017, Moreno et al. 2018).
Dehesa systems have become internationally known for
supporting outstanding levels of biodiversity, a characteristic that
qualified them for listing in the EU Habitats Directive as a natural
habitat type of community-wide interest. Consequently, a large
share of dehesas has been included in the EU Natura 2000
network of protected areas, attracting many visitors and leading
to the development of diverse conservation measures (Sánchez-
Martín et al. 2019). Up to 140 species of conservation concern
that inhabit dehesas are listed in the Annexes of European Birds
and Habitats Directives. These represent 9%–34% of the
terrestrial vertebrates, 14% of the plants, and 69% of the mammals
listed in the Directives for Spain (Díaz et al. 2013). Santos-Reis
and Correia (1999) identified 264 fungi, 75 bryophytes, 304
vascular plant, and 121 vertebrate species in a single 220 ha
montado. Moreno et al. (2016) recorded 504 plant, 140 bee, 161
spider, and 25 earthworm species in a 5000-ha area covered by
dehesas. Overall, dehesas sustain higher species richness than
neighboring oak forests for several taxonomic groups, especially
for species-rich groups such as passerine birds, diurnal butterflies,
and herbaceous plants (but less markedly for medium-sized and
large mammals and woody plants; Díaz et al. 2013). Dehesas
harbor several globally threatened species that depend on
landscape diversity because they simultaneously exploit different
habitat types (Carrete and Donázar 2005). Flagship species such
as Imperial Eagles (Aquila adalberti), Black Vultures (Aegypius
monachus), Black Storks (Ciconia nigra), Common Cranes (Grus
grus), and Iberian lynx (Lynx pardina) use dehesas as feeding
habitat, and adjacent forest and shrubland for breeding. Dehesas
alone do not maintain a large proportion of critically endangered
species. However, the coexistence of dehesas with other habitat
types at the landscape scale contributes to the maintenance of a
large proportion of the species of European conservation concern
(Díaz et al. 2013).
The study of dehesas provides an opportunity to explore what
global insights might be derived from regional-level, place-based
research. The dehesa system is uniquely confined to the Iberian
Peninsula, though similar agroforestry systems occur in France,
Italy, and Greece (den Herder et al. 2017) as well as in Northern
Africa and Western Asia (Moreno and Rolo 2019). Although
dehesas have been sporadically described by foreign researchers
for a long time (e.g., Smith 1916, Parsons 1962), international
research on it started to develop systematically in the mid-1980s.
According to the Web of Science, dehesas have been explicitly
addressed in 679 international studies published between 1985
and 2020 and cited 9190 times as of 10 August 2020. For
comparison, orchard meadows (another outstanding European
agroforestry system of high nature value) have been the subject
of only 20 studies listed in the Web of Science. The complexity of
the dehesa system offers research questions for multiple
disciplines, including forestry, agronomy, agroforestry, range
management, forest ecology, conservation science, rural
sociology, and environmental history. This complexity comes with
the risk of knowledge being fragmented across individual studies
After 35 years of international publications on dehesas, we see an
opportunity to take stock of the findings from research over time.
Campos et al. (2013) have synthesized literature on the
management of oak woodlands in Mediterranean-climate
regions, comparing Spain and California; Moreno and Rolo
(2019) compiled studies of the biophysical basis of dehesa
functioning and dynamics; and Leal et al. (2019) reviewed the
sustainability implications of cork oak woodlands in Western
Europe and North Africa. However, a synthesis of the full body
of literature on the links between land use and management
practices, biodiversity, and policy in dehesas from a “high nature
value farming system” perspective has not been conducted. The
aim of this study is to synthesize international studies on
conservation problems in dehesas and montados through a social-
ecological lens. For this purpose, we formulate the following
research questions (Fig. 1):
. How has nature conservation been studied in the dehesa
. What are the indirect drivers and land management
pressures influencing the ecological state of dehesas?
. What key landscape and land use features characterize the
ecological reference state of dehesas?
. Which species groups and ecosystem services are affected by
changes in the state of dehesas?
. What management and policy responses have been
suggested or developed?
We reviewed scientific studies that covered nature conservation
issues in the dehesa system. Because we were primarily interested
in international scholarly evidence, we searched for studies
included in the Web of Science Core Collection database. In our
search, we used the keywords “dehesa*” and “montado*” in titles,
keywords, and abstracts. We covered literature published from
1985 (when the first study using the term “dehesa” was published)
up to and including 2020. This yielded 679 studies. Selection of
relevant studies was a three-stage process. We defined studies as
relevant if they centered on dehesas or montados (composed of
grazed open stands of Quercus suber and Quercus ilex) in Spain
or Portugal (Fig. 2). Relevant studies had to focus on the links
between biodiversity and land use and/or between land use and
governance. For example, we excluded studies that focused on
basic ecology (without conservation implications), soil fertility,
hydrology, animal breeding, or food quality of dehesa products.
We considered only empirical studies and excluded opinion,
conceptual, and review papers.
We took a conservative approach and in cases of doubt passed
studies on to the next phase. After a joint screening to calibrate
assessment among co-authors, the selection was performed by the
first author. In the first round, we selected 293 studies based on
their titles. In the second round, we selected 154 studies based on
their abstracts. We assessed the full papers in a third round and
retained only studies that were deeply engaged with conservation
and natural resource management issues. The remaining 128
papers are our study sample (cf. Appendix 1 for a full list of the
Ecology and Society 26(3): 23
Fig. 1. Research questions organized within the Drivers - Pressures - State - Impacts -
Responses (DPSIR) framework.
Fig. 2. Examples of holm oak (Quercus ilex, left) dominated
dehesa and cork oak (Quercus suber, right) dominated
Similar to Hanspach et al. (2020), we combined qualitative and
quantitative approaches to synthesize the diverse nature
conservation literature on dehesas. We extracted nine categories
(Table 1) for which we then calculated descriptive statistics. Our
assessment of conservation trends in dehesas was structured into
five categories according to the “Drivers - Pressures - State -
Impacts - Responses” (DPSIR) framework. DPSIR is a general
framework developed by the European Environment Agency and
has been frequently used for the integrated assessment of
environmental resources (Stanners et al. 2007). We adapted the
DPSIR framework to the dehesa context, drawing on similar
contextualization exercises in the area of biodiversity research
(Maxim et al. 2009). Whereas other work with the DPSIR
framework has focused on analyzing specific and well-delimited
issues, e.g., noise hazards (Rieder et al. 2015), we analyze dehesas
as a complex system in which a multitude of drivers, pressures,
states, impacts, and responses are interacting. For “drivers” we
assessed broad underlying causes of change, drawing on the
typology established by Costa et al. (2014). As “pressures” we
included all direct causes of change, drawing on categories defined
by van Vliet et al. (2015) and Plieninger et al. (2016), but adapting
these to specific threats mentioned in the studies. For “state” we
considered the landscape-level ecological state of dehesas
described in the studies as archetypical, thereby defining the
reference state (McNellie et al. 2020) for the DPSIR framework.
For “impacts” we were interested in biodiversity trends (declines
or increases in the richness, diversity, or abundance of species
groups) and in changes in ecosystem service supply resulting from
drivers and pressures. Under “responses” we assembled all
potential or existing management and policy strategies mentioned
positively in the studies. These were inductively coded in
categories, including both management responses and policy
Ecology and Society 26(3): 23
responses. Besides formally coding the information from the
studies into the categories mentioned in Table 2, we noted
illustrative examples of drivers, pressures, states, impacts, and
policy responses. We performed frequency analyses to
characterize the studies according to the aforementioned
Fig. 3. Number of scientific studies published on dehesas in
general (light green, n = 679) and specifically on nature
conservation issues (dark green, n = 128).
Fig. 4. Distribution of dehesas across the Iberian Peninsula
(green) and number of studies conducted in each Spanish
province / Portuguese district (sources: CORINE Land Cover,
European Environment Agency, Eurostat).
We found a total of 128 international studies focusing on nature
conservation in dehesas (Appendix 1). The first study included in
our sample appeared in 1988, and was followed by a steady growth
in publications on dehesas and nature conservation that leveled
out around 2008 (Fig. 3). Dehesa studies are geographically
balanced, with 65 studies conducted in Spain, 57 in Portugal, and
six bi-national studies. All major regions where dehesas occur
have been covered, including a total of 13 Spanish provinces and
seven Portuguese districts (Fig. 4). Studies have been published
in 56 journals altogether (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5. Percentage of studies following different analytical
Table 1. Categories used for coding the study characteristics.
Name Description Categories
Year Year of publication E.g., 1999, 2000
Journal outlet Journal name E.g., Ecology and
Study area Approximate location of
the study (province/
E.g., Evora, Cáceres
Land use Management practices
Dehesa type Dominant tree species Holm oak, Cork oak,
Mixed holm oak, and
Scale of analysis Spatial scale at which
the study was conducted
communities, Tree cover,
Land use, Integrated
Transdisciplinarity Level of stakeholder
Strong, Some, None
Interdisciplinarity Level of
Social only, Ecological
only, Integrated social-
Ecology and Society 26(3): 23
Table 2. Categories used for coding drivers, pressures, state,
impacts, and responses.
Name Description Categories
Drivers Indirect drivers of
Natural, Political, Economic,
Pressures Direct pressures on
dehesa reference state as
a result of land
Conversion to other land use,
Land abandonment, Tree age
structure, Changes in forest
management, Changes in crop
cultivation, Changes in livestock
expressed as typical or
ideal in the conservation
Extensive livestock grazing,
Scattered oak stands,
Diverse land use / cover, Rich
Impacts Consequences of drivers
and pressures on
richness / diversity /
abundance of particular
species groups or in
supply of ecosystem
Birds, Mammals, Reptiles,
Plant communities, Provisioning
ecosystem services, Regulating
ecosystem services, Cultural
Responses Potential or existing
management or policy
Landscape management, Forest
management, Information /
Most studies approached dehesa farms as integrated agroforestry
systems, while others focused on livestock grazing or forestry. All
major types of oak stands were covered, with mixed holm oak
and cork oak stands being most frequent. Different spatial scales
were addressed in the study sample, covering farm, local, regional,
and national levels. However, international studies investigating
the full range of dehesas in Spain and Portugal were rare. The
conservation focus of studies was most frequently animals and
A large majority of studies did not include the perspectives of
stakeholders. Those with some stakeholder involvement often
used interviews or mail surveys at some stage. Studies reporting
a more intensive stakeholder involvement used techniques like
focus groups, Delphi assessment, or follow-up surveys. As to
disciplinary approaches, most studies focused either on ecological
or social issues. However, there were some interdisciplinary social-
ecological studies. These examined, for example, links between
land management and ecosystem services, social-ecological
drivers of land use change, or cost-effective conservation
measures based on the integration of biodiversity and farm
Economic drivers were mentioned most often and technological
drivers less often (Fig. 6). Economic drivers often referred to the
declining profitability of traditional dehesa products and
pressures to intensify and simplify agricultural production. The
larger context of the economic crisis in traditional agriculture
starting in the 1960s, and the transition of Spain and Portugal to
market economies in the 1970s, was also highlighted. Among
other economic drivers were a focus on short-term cash flows,
increasing labor costs, limited recognition and commercial
promotion of the environmental values of dehesa products, and
increasing competition for land. This was related to deficits in the
organization of the producing sector, for instance in terms of
value addition, value chain optimization, and producer
cooperation. Natural drivers included multiple aspects of climate
change, such as an increased frequency and severity of wildfires
and an increasing frequency of droughts, in addition to several
pests and diseases affecting important components of the dehesa
system (sudden oak death, African swine fever, rabbit disease,
invasive species). Socio-cultural drivers referred to processes of
rural outmigration, rural change, and population aging, often
leading to decreasing availability of labor on dehesa farms,
generational renewal, or land abandonment. Larger societal
modernization and urbanization processes were also addressed,
together with low consumer awareness of biodiversity and
ecosystem services from dehesas. On the other hand, new lifestyles
and demand for dehesa contributions to human well-being,
landscape aesthetics, hunting and leisure opportunities, and
public discourse on ethical standards, heritage farming, or land
stewardship are coming to the fore and were highlighted. The
most prominent political drivers identified were the EU Common
Agricultural Policy and other agricultural policies, noted as
frequently incentivizing agricultural intensification and
abandonment of multifunctional management practices. In
particular, the direct payments within the first pillar of Common
Agricultural Policy were recognized as an influential driver of
intensification. Nature conservation policies that focus on
restoring natural processes and discouraging livestock grazing
were also highlighted as drivers, together with more specialized
legislation on animal sanitary rules, e.g., interdicting disposal of
livestock carcasses to vultures or the control of wild species that
transmit diseases to livestock, such as red deer that transmit
tuberculosis. Technological drivers comprised new farming
practices such as the use of biocides, mineral fertilizers, and farm
Fig. 6. Drivers and pressures identified in the studies.
Among the pressures directly affecting dehesas, changes in
livestock management appeared most frequently (Fig. 6). Studies
identified increases in livestock densities and multiple shifts: from
sheep and goats to cattle, from the use of indigenous to introduced
livestock breeds, from pastoral herding (e.g., transhumance) to
Ecology and Society 26(3): 23
year-round free-range grazing, from grazing natural rangelands to
improved pastures (e.g., with sowed legumes), and from fodder
self-sufficiency to a reliance on external fodder inputs. In some
cases, decreasing livestock densities were reported as pressures.
Changes in crop cultivation included a simplification of farming
systems by abandoning rain-fed crop cultivation and intensifying
the remaining uses. This was described as an overall trend from
integral, holistic uses of land resources toward more
monofunctional land management and less diversified, single-
commodity production. Tree age structure was another frequently
mentioned category of pressure. It included observations of oak
stands that are aging, in poor health, or at the end of their life span,
but also concerns about tree recruitment failure, as observed
through a lack of seedlings and saplings because of continuous
grazing and/or climate change. Land abandonment meant the
abandonment of all management activities without replacement,
most typically followed by shrub encroachment. Conversion to
other land uses referred to a fundamental transformation to a new
land system. Land uses mentioned included irrigated arable crops,
eucalypt and pine plantations (for producing pulp and paper),
intensive hunting areas, afforestation with native tree species, olive
groves, and more recently, almonds and other nut trees, urban
areas, dams, and road infrastructure. Removal of oaks is frequently
part of the conversion process. Changes in forest management, the
least frequently cited category, comprised both increases (e.g., use
of pesticides, vegetation clearing) and decreases (e.g., pruning, oak
maintenance, use of acorns for pig fattening) in practices.
Studies referenced their findings to an archetypical ecological state
often described in fairly generic but remarkably consistent ways,
defining together a generalized reference state (McNellie et al.
2020). Diverse land use / cover was the most frequently mentioned
characteristic used for describing the reference state for dehesas
(Fig. 7). The diverse and multifunctional land uses, e.g., multiple
combinations of grazing, forest management, and ancillary crop
cultivation plus other side-activities, and their variation over space
and time were described as creating complex landscape patterns
and high spatial (vertical and horizontal) heterogeneity. These
patterns form mosaics of different vegetation structures including
open and closed stands of shrubs or trees, varying levels of tree
density, and patches of high and low grazing intensities.
Combinations of oaks with different layers of pastures,
shrublands, and cultivated lands create multiple ecotones, thus
supporting diverse species assemblages. Overall, the semi-natural
character of these landscape patterns and the constantly required
human interventions were emphasized. The presence of scattered
oak stands was another important defining feature, providing
keystone structures and ecosystem engineering. These stands were
described as typically extending across large areas and occurring
in a scattered pattern on the landscape, with an open character of
around 30%–50% canopy cover. The identification of extensive
livestock grazing as an important characteristic was based on the
fact that dehesas are shaped by Mediterranean pastoralism that
relies on local resources and makes limited use of external inputs.
Rich landscape elements comprised structures that provide
habitats and increase spatial heterogeneity, for instance, dry stone
walls, fruit orchards, small olive groves, ponds, and riparian areas.
The unfragmented ecosystems category highlighted dehesas as
large-scale habitat with low levels of disturbance.
Fig. 7. Characteristics of the reference state and the impacts of
the drivers and pressures on biodiversity and ecosystem services
identified in the studies.
Impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services
Multiple impacts on biodiversity were identified in the studies,
covering plant communities, birds, mammals, invertebrates,
reptiles, and amphibians (Fig. 7), but also epiphytic lichen or soil
macrofauna and fungal communities. Pressures on broad species
groups, e.g., butterflies or dung beetles, and on single species were
investigated. Individual species of interest often were rare and/or
charismatic birds, e.g., Common Crane, Imperial Eagle, Black
Vulture, and mammals, or keystone species of importance for
particular ecosystem functions or services, e.g., jay, wild rabbits,
or wood mouse. Impacts on biodiversity included direct effects,
such as the negative impact of soil tillage on soil macrofauna and
fungal communities. Indirect and cascading effects of vegetation
shifts on different taxa were also described, for example because
of a change in the availability of resources (water, forage) refugia,
and microclimates. Studies pointed to the complex,
interconnected, and often counteracting relationships between
land use activities and biodiversity and how outcomes were often
dependent on environmental factors. The reported effect of
grazing on the diversity of plant communities, for instance, varied
among the papers, and was shown to be co-influenced by the
availability of water and the presence of scattered trees. Although
land abandonment and shrub encroachment were reported as
increasing the risk of wildfire occurrence, maintaining a
protective shrub layer was often reported to positively affect oak
tree regeneration. Feedback loops were identified between slowly
proceeding land use transitions and abrupt landscape changes
catalyzed by wildfires. For example, decreased habitat patch size
and connectivity caused by wildfires was shown to limit
progression to late-successional plant communities and favor the
persistence of fire-prone plant species.
Impacts on provisioning, regulating, and cultural ecosystem
services also came up frequently. Among the provisioning services
mentioned were mainly agricultural and forestry goods, such as
high-quality food, meat and dairy products, fighting bulls, fodder,
and cork, but also wild resources such as game, mushrooms, wild
asparagus, or berries. Regulating ecosystem services, including
control of wildfires and soil erosion, were frequently highlighted,
as well as services such as climate regulation, control of water
Ecology and Society 26(3): 23
quality, and maintenance of hydrological cycles. Affected cultural
services included aesthetic values, outdoor recreation and
ecotourism, cultural heritage values, regional identity, and
traditional ecological knowledge. Impacts on real estate values
and on physical and mental health were also mentioned.
Management and policy responses
Suggested management responses focused on landscape, forest,
rangeland, business, and cropland management (Fig. 8).
Landscape management responses were systems-based, calling
for diverse land uses, creating distinct habitat structures, and
providing multiple ecosystem services and different resources to
wildlife, e.g., food or shelter, at the landscape scale. Increasing
connectivity, managing land for carnivores, and maintaining and
restoring habitat diversity and particular landscape features, e.g.,
wetlands, stone walls, wood piles, were additional responses
suggested. Forest management responses were largely directed to
ensuring effective regeneration of oak stands, for instance by
sowing seedlings, fostering protective shrubs, or using tree
protectors. Maintaining old trees, leaving decaying trees with
cavities in dehesas, and conserving marginal oak populations were
additional suggestions. Rangeland management responses
mainly concerned maintaining intermediate levels of soil and
vegetation disturbance. Locally adapted and low to medium
livestock grazing levels were recommended, as were rotational
practices and areas where grazing would be excluded over medium
to long terms. Mixed-species grazing, better paddock
management, and similar practices were also suggested. Cutting
of shrubs should include fostering protective shrubby patches
while preventing shrub encroachment, according to some papers.
Cropland management referred to recommendations for
increasing cropping and fallow lands in dehesas to provide
resources for wildlife, increase heterogeneity, and improve self-
sufficiency in producing supplementary fodder. At the same time,
avoidance of intensive cereal production and of mechanized
plowing (in particular near trees and watercourses) was advised.
Business responses were largely dedicated to diversifying
production (e.g., by harvesting and commercializing edible fungi
and wild asparagus or selling sclerophyllous shrub cuttings as
biofuels) and to fostering cooperation between producers. The
need for marketing that makes visible the societal values generated
by dehesas, and that reaches new consumer groups, such as urban
young people as well as socially and environmentally responsible
consumers, was mentioned. Certification and labeling, e.g.,
geographic indication labels, Forest Stewardship Council, and
branding to strengthen the link of these labels to distinct land
management practices was emphasized.
Policy responses were distributed across economic incentives,
regulation, and information/knowledge categories (Fig. 8).
Suggested economic incentives focused strongly on the EU
Common Agricultural Policy, its general maintenance, and
specific advancements, e.g., better support for low-intensity
farming and extensive grazing, oak planting and protection, or
targeting of specific plant or bird assemblages of conservation
interest. Furthermore, general transformations of the funding
model were mentioned to support multifunctionality,
heterogeneity, and sustainability of land use. This included
suggestions to convert agricultural support into a payment
scheme for multiple ecosystem services. Introducing tax breaks
and schemes that are regionally specific, foster cooperation, and
address the needs of private landowners were also highlighted.
Regulation included the establishment of protected areas, e.g.,
biosphere reserves, and clearer legal definitions of “good
practice” in dehesa management. Information/knowledge
referred to training, information, and support activities for land
managers through extension services, but also to better
monitoring of dehesa management through remote sensing.
Further, studies called for participatory approaches in natural
resource management and planning, as well as for governance
forms embracing “land stewardship.” Increased citizen awareness
of dehesas through environmental education, preserving
traditional pastoral and farming cultures, and facilitating
cooperation among dehesa managers and broader stakeholders
were also mentioned.
Fig. 8. Land management (a) and policy (b) responses
suggested to support the reference state of dehesas identified in
With this study we set out to explore how international research
has investigated a land use system of high nature value, dehesas
and montados. Although these are regional systems, mostly found
on the Iberian Peninsula, they have generated enormous academic
interest and have inspired research and activism for agroforestry,
high nature value farming, and sustainable agriculture across
Europe (Hartel et al. 2018, Moreno et al. 2018, Rolo et al. 2020).
They may also offer inspiration for corresponding, but less
investigated land use systems occurring at smaller scales, in
particular in the southern and eastern part of the Mediterranean
region. Dehesa research became established in the 1980s.
Although the number of articles produced each year is not
growing, we found a steady publication rate of 40–50 studies per
year over the past 10 years. Geographically, the dehesa system has
been investigated in all areas of Spain and Portugal where it
occurs, with strong clustering in the provinces/regions of Alentejo
(Portugal) and Extremadura (Spain). These regions are
recognized as the dehesa “heartland,” but are also home to the
strongest research groups investigating the dehesas, based in
Evora and Plasencia.
For effective management of social-ecological systems, it is
recommended that they be assessed at multiple scales (Ostrom
2009). We found that the dehesa system has been examined at a
multitude of spatial scales (from farm to national). However, the
potential for analyses across whole countries that capitalize on
recent advances in data availability, e.g., satellite data and Pan-
European databases such as LUCAS (d’Andrimont et al. 2020),
and land-systems modeling has not yet been fully exploited for
dehesas, which reflects the place-based character of international
Ecology and Society 26(3): 23
dehesa research. A frequently used synthesis approach that
increased the generality of insights used cross-site comparisons
across multiple local dehesa areas (Magliocca et al. 2015). Linking
analyses from different scales can also help to recognize the
different feedbacks and trade-offs for nature conservation that
occur across the system (Díaz et al. 2015).
Overall, dehesa research has comprehensively addressed a broad
range of topics and been published by multiple academic
communities. Typically, individual components of the dehesa
system have been investigated, e.g., tree regeneration or bird
communities. Our review showed that the people owning,
managing, using, or appreciating dehesas have been less
frequently studied, and social science approaches have rarely been
used. Furthermore, inter- and transdisciplinary approaches that
integrate social and ecological sciences, take a systems perspective,
and engage with stakeholders through different participatory
schemes are relatively rare. Understanding local user values, rules,
and knowledge systems can complement or even mitigate the
undesirable effects of top-down governance approaches (Ostrom
2009) and avoid the decoupling of the social and ecological
components of the system (Fischer et al. 2012). Increased
understanding of the factors that motivate manager decisions and
practices is important for dehesa conservation (Pinto-Correia et
al. 2019). In addition to that, knowledge of the interactions of
manager motives and multi-scaled and sometimes conflicting or
overlapping policy attempts at incentivizing changes in behavior
or maintaining traditional practices is essential. Given the
changing state of dehesas, improved integration of social factors
into dehesa research could strengthen understanding of the inter-
relationships of people and nature, the effects of policy
interventions, and what is needed to ensure greater sustainability
(Cortés Capano et al. 2019).
Although most studies investigated specific components of the
land use system, when taken together and fit to the DPSIR
framework, the studies we have reviewed allow for a full overview
of the drivers, pressures, reference states, impacts, and responses
relevant to dehesa systems. The drivers of the dehesa system are
complex and interacting, as revealed in broader studies of land
use change in Europe (van Vliet et al. 2015, Plieninger et al. 2016).
A central driver identified is the repeatedly reformed EU
Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its implications for
dehesa economies. Dehesas are mostly private land, so the
decisions and values of the landowner and the reactions of
landowners to the CAP have a major influence on dehesa
management (Fernandes and Guiomar 2016). On the one hand,
the CAP is a basic support system fundamentally determining the
current agricultural system in dehesas. The CAP also provides
agri-environmental funding that allows dehesa farmers to
improve marketing, introduce product labels, convert to organic
agriculture, preserve indigenous livestock breeds, and/or maintain
nature-friendly land uses (Pinto-Correia 2000). On the other
hand, and more importantly, various stages in CAP reformation
have created incentives for intensifying and simplifying the
complex dehesa system (Pinto-Correia and Azeda 2017). For
instance, the livestock-based payments applied in previous CAP
periods (called coupled payments, still remaining partially
maintained) provoked a steady increase of livestock densities to
maximize subsidies and grant revenues (Gaspar et al. 2008). In
addition, CAP rules have created direct barriers and other
disadvantages for dehesa farms in qualifying for direct payments.
For example, some eligibility rules have excluded dehesa parcels
with a high tree density and/or the presence of a shrub layer,
threatening the economic sustainability of the best conserved
dehesa farms (Plieninger et al. 2015, Mosquera-Losada et al.
2018). A particular challenge for a multifunctional system such
as dehesas is the prevailing organization of agricultural, forestry,
and conservation policies into monofunctional sectors. Most
other drivers mentioned in the reviewed studies are similar to
those identified for high nature value farming systems in Europe,
such as the generally low economic profitability of traditional
land use, the challenge of rising wages in a labor-intensive system,
or rural outmigration (Bieling et al. 2013, Plieninger and Bieling
2013, Lomba et al. 2020). Natural drivers, such as changing
climate, pests, and diseases, also exacerbate many pressures on
different system components, such as oaks and livestock.
Drivers translate into different pressures on dehesas (Fig. 1). Some
pressures were reported to act specifically on livestock, forest, or
crop components, while others affect the dehesa system as a whole.
Interestingly, pressures from livestock production were often
attributed to intensification processes, such as increases in
stocking rates, shifts toward year-round grazing, introduction of
high-performance breeds, de-emphasis on tree crops, and
increased reliance on external resources. In contrast, pressures
around forestry and crop cultivation were mainly expressed by
extensification processes, such as ending oak pruning practices or
abandoning cultivation. These pressures are mainly driven by
CAP direct payments incentivizing simplified livestock raising
through payments within the first pillar of the CAP (Guerra et
al. 2016) and the higher profitability of livestock production
compared to forestry production. As observed elsewhere (Schulp
et al. 2019, Riechers et al. 2020), intensification and abandonment
pressures act in the same area (potentially reinforcing each other)
and lead to simplified forms of land use, in the case of dehesas
creating a shift from a complex multifunctional agrosilvopastoral
system to a simplified system focusing on livestock raising.
Because both over-use and under-use are destructive to dehesa
systems, managing them at intermediate disturbance levels can
be challenging (Bugalho et al. 2011).
Understandings of the key characteristics that define the reference
state of the dehesa for the purposes of the DPSIR framework
come very close to conceptualizations of the desirable
characteristics of HNV farming (Cooper et al. 2007, European
Commission 2016). Most notably, a “mosaic” of land uses
(grazing, forest management, rotational crops, other uses) and
vegetation types (pasture, shrubland, fallow land, cultivated land,
and tree stands in different densities) creates structural diversity
at different spatial and temporal scales. In addition, livestock
management practices are based on limited external inputs such
as artificial fertilizers, biocides, and commercial feeds. Third, the
presence of rich landscape elements, such as dry stone walls, dead
trees, orchards, hedgerows, shrubby patches, ponds, watercourses,
or old farm buildings (Moreno et al. 2016), adds to habitat
diversity. And fourth, there is a large extent of unfragmented
dehesas, which is of importance for disturbance-sensitive species.
Drivers, pressures, and ecological state shape the multiple impacts
on plants, birds, and other aspects of biodiversity. Interestingly,
dehesa research follows a trend observed for agroforestry and
Ecology and Society 26(3): 23
“trees outside forests” at large (e.g., Plieninger et al. 2012), in that
assessment of various ecosystem services has moved into the
foreground. Although the cultural values of land management
have often been insufficiently taken up in the ecosystem services
literature (Chan et al. 2012), cultural ecosystem services were
studied on par with provisioning and regulating services in the
research that we synthesized. This highlights the importance of
dehesas for heritage values or as a repository of indigenous and
local ecological knowledge. The fact that many dehesa ecosystem
services can be classified into multiple categories, e.g., foraging of
mushrooms or hunting as both provisioning and cultural
ecosystem services, highlights how ecosystem services are co-
produced by nature and people in this land-use system (Torralba
et al. 2018). Our synthesis of existing literature from a DPSIR
perspective can complement regional multi-scale ecosystem
service assessments, which are increasingly promoted as a crucial
step in tackling global biodiversity loss and environmental
problems (e.g., Díaz et al. 2019).
Our examination of management responses revealed a plethora
of available tools and models for nature-friendly dehesa
management, ranging from specific, technical approaches, e.g.,
oak recruitment techniques, to system-based landscape
management practices (Rolo et al. 2020). This pool of approaches
could be analyzed with solution-scanning methods and made
available as a practical toolbox (Hernández-Morcillo et al. 2018).
The multitude of potential policy responses also indicates some
parallels to the literature on integrated landscape management.
Moving beyond single-topic policy solutions (for instance, a ban
on fences that exclude wildlife or a prohibition on removing
environmentally sensitive permanent grassland), territorial or
landscape approaches to management, planning, and policy
(Sayer et al. 2013) appear most useful for addressing the multiple
drivers and pressures affecting dehesas and maintaining a
desirable reference state (Varela et al. 2020). This requires in
particular better coordination between sectorial activities and
policies, most notably between agricultural and conservation
policies (Therville et al. 2020). But although environmental policy
integration has been a long-standing goal at EU level, multiple
barriers and power imbalances, e.g., between farmers practicing
diversified and simplified agriculture, make this integration
difficult to achieve (Pe’er et al. 2019). An in-depth investigation
of power relations and discourses around the dehesa system may
improve understanding of which of these and other sectorial
policies are stronger and why (Felipe-Lucia et al. 2015, Berbés-
Blázquez et al. 2016, Pinto-Correia et al. 2019). Implementing
landscape approaches will also require higher levels of
participation and self-organization and a broader integration of
the different interests of the many actors with a stake in dehesas,
which ideally would lead to a joint vision (Garrido et al. 2017).
Although some of these actors may not be interested in nor have
the capacity to design conservation-oriented measures, farmer
participation and collaboration has been found essential for
effective agri-environmental governance (Westerink et al. 2017).
Participation has the potential to help mitigate some of the many
conflicts and tensions around dehesas, but also to incorporate
shared learning, monitoring, and evaluation in policy measures,
thus creating cultural and social capital (Burton and
Paragahawewa 2011). Reconfiguring CAP payments toward
collaborative, regional-level action for biodiversity and toward a
results-based payment scheme for ecosystem services may be the
most comprehensive pathway toward dehesa stewardship. Many
such models have been developed and tested in various parts of
Europe and could be adapted to the dehesa context (Herzon et
al. 2018, Moran et al. 2021).
This synthesis of the literature on dehesas and montados as “high
nature value” farming systems illustrates how long-established
Mediterranean land management practices have created a social-
ecological system with an extraordinary wealth of actors,
practices, biodiversity, and ecosystem services, a system that has
raised European and global conservation interest. Based on the
synthesis of 128 published studies on nature conservation
problems in the dehesa, we derive four key messages that address
our research questions.
The first message is that dehesa research has informed high nature
value farming internationally. However, much of the published
research has treated the dehesa system in an unintegrated way,
studying oak regeneration, pasture productivity, conservation of
threatened species, or economic status as independent factors,
when in fact they are highly interconnected and interdependent.
Future dehesa studies would benefit from more integrative
systems perspectives and from a stronger involvement of
landowners and farmers in research processes.
Second, agricultural policies together with economic dynamics
(as expressed in market prices) are key drivers. These drivers
translate into pressures acting on dehesas, such as intensification
of livestock raising, abandonment of forestry and crop
cultivation, and land-use simplification. Policy measures directed
to dehesas have often had a top-down character and single
purpose focus. Most notably, the fate of the dehesa has been
strongly influenced by the Common Agricultural Policy. The CAP
has created complex and sometimes ill-suited rules for dehesas,
targeting separate components, but not specifically the
characteristics of the system: the parts but not the emergent whole.
Currently prevailing policies, interacting with other drivers and
pressures, appear to be leading to the decline of the social-
ecological values of the dehesa system.
Third, landscape features, most notably a mosaic of land uses,
scattered tree cover, low-intensity livestock grazing, rich
landscape structure, and unfragmented ecosystems, underpin the
biodiversity and ecosystem services values of the dehesa system.
Any conservation action should ensure maintenance and
restoration of these essential components, and the interactions
among components, in a high nature value farming system.
And finally, plenty of management and policy responses are
available, but there is a need to move from single-topic to cross-
sectorial, landscape-level approaches. The dehesa system depends
on measures and grants that fit the complexity of their
biodiversity and ecosystem services values. Such policy responses
should also take landowner and farmer perceptions, willingness,
and capacity to innovate or to adopt measures for dehesa
conservation into consideration. At the same time, the dehesa has
become important for cultural identification and nature
conservation, including the values and demands of a wider, more
distant, and more urbanized society.
Ecology and Society 26(3): 23
Integrating the needs and goals of property owners and local
communities with those of a distant public will be a continuing
challenge for dehesa conservation. Accompanying this process by
innovative governance models (in particular, by a CAP that
acknowledges the multiple societal values provided by dehesas)
is the beginning of what we hope will be a long story of successful
conservation of this valuable and rich social-ecological system.
Responses to this article can be read online at:
We acknowledge support by the Open Access Publication Funds of
the University of Göttingen. This research has been funded by the
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research
Foundation), project number 426675955. It contributes to the
Global Land Programme (https://www.glp.earth/) and the
Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (https://pecs-
science.org/). We are grateful to Cristina Quintas-Soriano for
assistance in the generation of the figures.
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