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A tree isn't just for Christmas

"You need to get planting" said Pláci as we walked among the oak trees last summer. "Not for yourselves. For a hundred years from now".

In Extremadura, trees are a way of life. The encina, or evergreen holm oak, is the region's emblem, and the dehesa is all around: a million or so hectares of it. Dehesa is the name of the type of countryside that predominates in Extremadura and southern Portugal. From the Latin defensa, meaning fenced off, it's rolling green pasture dotted with holm and cork oaks (alcornoque), where free range pigs rummage for the acorns that make jamón ibérico the world's best ham. Cotton ball clouds and a blue sky complete the picture.

For hundreds of years, the dehesa system has been central to the Extremaduran economy. Pigs and sheep provide food and wool; pollarded wood provides fuel for heating and cooking; mushrooms and honey are abundant; and every nine years or so, farmers can harvest and sell the bark of their cork oaks. No plastic corks in these parts. The dehesa is also a habitat for some of the most diverse wildlife in Europe, including the Spanish Imperial Eagle and rare Iberian lynx.

At our fincas in the north and south of Extremadura, Andy and I have plenty of oak trees, but there are also gaps. Desertification is a huge and growing problem across Spain, as unsustainable farming dries up the aquifers and climate change batters the land. And as younger generations leave the countryside in search of easier ways to make a living, the upkeep of the dehesa is under threat. You'll sometimes see a meadow with just a solitary oak tree left: picturesque but troubling.

It is illegal to cut down healthy oaks here, but the natural lifespan of a tree is around 250 years and each winter old age, disease and storms will claim a few more. Around 70 percent of the Iberian peninsula is now considered to be at risk of desertification, and a number of schemes have been launched encouraging tree planting to save the traditional landscape, and ultimately the planet.

Conscious too of the carbon emissions we generate when we fly to Spain, it was time to plant. Just before Christmas, when heavy rain had softened up the earth, we bought twenty saplings from our builder Francisco's cousin. We invested in ten encina whose small leaves resemble holly, and ten alcornoque with silver green foliage like miniature bayleaves. The saplings were about a foot tall and cost a euro each.

They looked impossibly frail. If planted without protection, they would be destroyed in no time by deer and our neighbour Antonio's pigs and cows that sometimes graze in the fields.

Pláci had the solution. Each day for a week he arrived in his van with three seven-foot cylinders of chicken wire, clipped together with the little pieces of wire used to attach the string to chorizo sausages. He was particularly pleased with that. He rounded them off with lengths of barbed wire positioned at pig and cow head height.

It will take ten years before the saplings are strong enough to fend for themselves, and another fifty before they take their place, fully fledged, in the life cycle of the dehesa. We won't be around to see that. As we planted them, Pláci had an idea. "You could give one each to the children to look after when they come to stay". So we tied on a label, took a picture and slipped it into their Christmas stockings.

If you would like to support tree planting in Extremadura, or sponsor a tree, contact Reforest Acción Network.

Photos by Andy Teare and Peter Barron


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