Cork and Cultural Landscapes in the Montado

Written by Duc L

The montado (as it is known in Portuguese) is a unique agro-forestry ecosystem found only in the Mediterranean region, known in Spanish as dehesa. This landscape is made up of savanna-like woodlands and is dominated by the cork oak, Quercus suber. Cork is an impermeable buoyant material and is harvested for commercial use, commonly for producing bottle stoppers, timber for building and making charcoal.

Cork oak woodlands have also offered grasslands for keeping livestock, while also providing habitats for animals and plants. Not only is there sustenance and income generated from cork and cattle, it provides space for recreation, social communities and culture. However, this precious ecological system is facing numerous pressures: rural abandonment, tree mortality, depreciation of cork market value, overgrazing and climate change.

Irene Holm Sørensen (Universities of Kassel in Germany and Copenhagen in Denmark) has studied the cultural landscape of southern Portugal and focuses on how agricultural landscapes change in time. She speaks to us about the montado and some of the socio-cultural traditions that developed around the cultivation of cork, as well as what happening to Portugal’s cork oak forests.

Cork oak trees as they look when freshly harvested. Photo credit José Muñoz-Rojas. Rights are reserved.

Q & A: Irene Holm Sørensen

Tell us a little about your backgrounds and what you’re now focusing on within your research department at the University of Kassel.

My educational pathways have always revolved around the importance of securing habitats to provide opportunities for all life to thrive in balance. This might sound utopic and like a classic answer from any idealist working with nature conservation, but it is true. I have a background in practical garden and landscape design, being hands-on and project oriented. I always thought something was missing in the big picture, so I shifted my focus to nature management and planning. Again, there was something missing. This led me to study ethnobotany, which is the study of the cultural use of plants. One particular aspect that I took with me was the focus of unique values, knowledge, and motivations that people have for engaging with nature.

In our research group, Socio-ecological Interactions in Agricultural Systems, we have a wide range of focus areas, but as the name suggests, we all work at the intersection between people and nature. Currently, we are several colleagues doing research on cultural landscapes, which are the result of centuries-long cultivation of the landscape. This could be agriculture, forestry, wild collection of plants, hunting, and also, patterns created by agri-silvopastoral, which combines pastoralism — extensive livestock and agriculture in a partially wooded environment, and a transhumance lifestyle — a type of nomadic farming. The practices performed on the landscape provides the backbone of the uniqueness a specific culture brings to an area.

For just under three years, I have been engaged with the cultural landscape of southern Portugal. Here, the landscape is made up of savanna-like woodlands, known in Portuguese as montado, and in Spanish as dehesa. The special thing about this landscape is that it is dominated by the cork oak, Quercus suber L. This tree species has its natural distribution range limited to the western part of the Mediterranean Basin, which makes this a very unique landscape, rarely observed from a global perspective.

Cork ready for the industrial processing. Photo credit: Tobias Plieninger. Rights are reserved.

We don’t normally think about where our cork materials come from. Give us some examples of how cork from Portugal is being used in products we may easily see in our everyday lives.

First of all, cork is both the name of the tree but also of the material. It is the outer bark layer harvested without killing the tree, something we also know from harvesting birch bark (Betula spp.). The first written sources that mention cork go back to Theophrastus (372-285 BC) first describing the cork oak, to Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) who mentions the uses in his Naturalis Historia XVI. Natural scientists have since described the unique qualities of cork as a natural sealant, such as Robert Hooke in Micrographia (1665). The first uses recorded were the utilisation of cork for building beehives, wine casks, and floats, and in 1680 the cork stopper was made popular by the Benedictine monk Pierre Perignon (1638-1715), who until today still lends his name to one of the most popular champagne brands worldwide.

In our daily life, we may come across cork without realising it. If we are wine drinkers, we will know the thrill of unscrewing the cork and hearing the characteristic “plop”, smelling the cork, and tasting the wine. Others may know cork from the soles of their sandals or flooring, but cork is also used as an ecological building material for isolation purposes. In the newest trends, cork is being used in components for aeronautics, clothes, handbags, pencil cases, and music instruments. The imagination is the only limit to its uses!

Please share with us some of the social cultural traditions that developed around the cultivation of cork.

Cork and Portugal go hand in hand. In Portugal, trade and industrial processing developed and specialised since the 18th century. In Catalunya in Spain, there are also certain industrial hubs specialised in producing bottle stoppers for champagne, and in France and Italy, particularly on Sardinia, where there are remnants of cork oak
forests, there will be some degree of harvest and processing. Portugal, being the country with the richest concentrations of cork oak, has naturally developed into the main place for the global cork market, receiving raw cork from all over the western Mediterranean.

The socio-cultural traditions linked to cork are inextricably linked to the uses of the material, but also to the landscape itself. The montado as a cultural landscape is very multi-faceted and has been the scenery for agri-silvo-pastoral traditions for centuries. This means that there has been a use of all the resources the cork oak woodlands have offered, such as timber for building and making charcoal, grasslands for keeping livestock, and habitats for wild game and in some cases, endangered animals and plants.

Many people might know the Iberian black footed pig breed residing in the Iberian Peninsula. During winter, the pig feeds off of the acorns from the oak trees, yielding a particularly flavourful meat. Olive groves and wine fields are other characteristic features in the southern Portuguese landscape, which attracts tourists interested in the local and regional foods and the cultural history.

Cork appears in multiple forms.
Photo credit: Irene Holm Sørensen. Rights are reserved.

What is happening to Portugal’s cork oak forests and why is it important to protect them?

For centuries, the use of the montado varied in intensity, and some practices have been given up whilst other have emerged. Particularly since the increase of modern agricultural methods and population trends in the 1950s, the woodlands experienced a polarisation between land abandonment and intensification of commodities, which have been profitable, supported by liberal market forces.

Through to today, intensive cattle rearing often clashes with attempts to regenerate populations of cork oak, which are under stress from heavy trampling and soil compactisation. Meanwhile, changes in climate are adding stress to the montado because of the increases in drought, hampering the rejuvenation of oak trees and increasing the risk of wildfires.

What researchers and the industry are now working on is finding a way to make the montado profitable for more than only a few commodities. On some estates there are experiments going on to integrate elements from permaculture and regenerative agriculture in order to improve soil properties, especially focusing on water storing capacity.

The montado is a unique ecosystem where humans and nature have co-existed for many years, and it is necessary to apply the correct balance of care, let-be, and extraction to sustain the landscape for the future.

Cork oak woodlands or montado in southern Portugal. Photo credit: José Muñoz-Rojas. This was published in the following open-access article via Frontiers under the CC BY license: Sørensen IH, Torralba M, Quintas-Soriano C, Muñoz-Rojas J and Plieninger T (2021) Linking Cork to Cork Oak Landscapes: Mapping the Value Chain of Cork Production in Portugal. Front. Sustain. Food Syst.

Final thoughts

Around the world, unique landscapes provide very specific and highly valorized food products. Landscape products are embedded in strong social-ecological relationships between local communities, global consumers and production environments. The montado is a potential system of high nature and social value, providing vital ecosystem services and conserving the biodiversity of the area.

It is a system that results from a high diversity in vegetation, fauna and land cover, as well as a particular balance between forestry and grazing. The characteristics of the resulting landscapes all co-exist within the limited environmental conditions of the Mediterranean region. These days, it is essential to sustainably manage these cultural landscapes while maintaining a social-ecological balance.

Irene Holm Sørensen now continues to study how to promote the improved management of the montado as a multifunctional ecosystem, reconciling resources use with conservation interests. Much more is needed to fully support management solution that require her type of research to continue.


Irene Holm Sørensen is a PhD candidate at the Universities of Kassel (Germany) and Copenhagen (Denmark). She has a background in landscape planning and nature management, as well as in ethnobotany. Her current research focuses on how products from cultural landscapes can provide incitement for sustainable management practices that help preserving the biocultural diversity of these landscapes.

Within our research group, we do not only produce scientific work, but we have also engaged with outreach. We have created a blog and an Instagram account where we make our research available and easily readable in a non-academic language.


Instagram: @people.nature.landscapes

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