Magazine article Geographical

Free Little Pigs: Since Time Immemorial, the Fate of Spain's Unique Oak Forests Has Been Inseparably Tied to the Future of the Iberian Pig. Now Ecologists and Farmers Are Working Together to Guarantee New Prospects for the Survival of Two of the Nation's Great Icons. Mark Eveleigh Reports from Spain's 'Wild West'

Magazine article Geographical

Free Little Pigs: Since Time Immemorial, the Fate of Spain's Unique Oak Forests Has Been Inseparably Tied to the Future of the Iberian Pig. Now Ecologists and Farmers Are Working Together to Guarantee New Prospects for the Survival of Two of the Nation's Great Icons. Mark Eveleigh Reports from Spain's 'Wild West'

Article excerpt

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'It's livestock farming at its most holistic,' Jose Luis Pinto told me as we watched his herd of black Iberian pigs disappear into the dappled shadows of an ancient oak forest. 'The original Spaniards were raising pigs this way long before the Romans arrived and, essentially, the methods have changed little. The breed itself is only slightly removed from the wild pigs that once roamed here. Their lives are almost identical to those of the wild boar in these same woods and they are still intimately related to a habitat that is purely Iberian.'

Until recently, much of western Spain (and a good part of inland Portugal) was covered by the sparse oak forests that are known as dehesa. This landscape has been a cornerstone of rural life here for centuries. Semi-wild pigs snuffled for acorns, and (wilder still) fighting bulls grazed in the shade. The hardy country folk also foraged here, collecting deadwood for fires, herbs and nuts for sustenance, and oak wood and cork for their huts.

In 63 BC, a Greek geographer wrote that a squirrel could climb a tree beside a beach in southern Spain and, jumping from branch to branch, could travel all the way to the north coast without touching the ground. Many of the extensive forests of western Spain have long since been supplanted by goat-poisoned semi-desert and savannah that is periodically incinerated in rampaging bushfires.

For most of the year, the landscape shimmers under a fireball that is more African than European and the grass is burnt the colour of a lion's hide. There are brief periods when much-needed rain sends up a sudden rush of lush, green shoots. Then comes the short but unforgiving winter, when bitter winds tear across the open steppes. With seasonal temperatures varying between -10[degrees]C and 50[degrees]C, it can often seem that the Extremaduran wilderness is totally hostile to both animal and human life.

The cost of deforestation has been immense, with a huge number of Spanish species losing their habitat. The dehesa was once prime territory for healthy populations of lynxes, wolves, wild boar, foxes, deer and even bears, along with countless native and transient bird species. Now experts claim that the future of the remaining forests can only be assured with the help of the humble Iberian pig. The tide is finally changing, and the dehesa is now receiving the protection it deserves.

FROM THE ACORNS ...

The famous Spanish nutritionist Dr Grande Covian once said that 'over the course of history, the pig has saved more lives in Spain than penicillin'. Pork was an important source of protein that weathered even 700 years of Muslim influence; today, Iberian ham is truly coming of age as a gastronomic institution. As a national delicacy, the production of jamon de bellota (literally 'ham from acorns') is time-consuming and expensive. At least a hectare of healthy dehesa is needed to raise a single pig, and since the trees may be several hundred years old, the prospects for reforesting lost oak forest are slim at best.

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True dehesa is a richly diverse habitat with four different types of oak that are crucial in the production of prime-quality ham. The bulk of the acorn harvest comes from the holm oak (from November to February), but the season would be too short without the earlier harvests of Spanish and gall oak and the late cork oak season, which, between them, stretch the acorn-chomping period from September almost to April.

This season is 'pig heaven' and, after acquiring a taste for the first nuts, the animals search out the sweet acorns with an almost single-minded addiction. A healthy pig will eat up to ten kilograms of acorns a day (along with three kilograms of grass and herbs). The acorn season is known as the montanera, and ham connoisseurs talk about 'the montanera of 2005' in similar terms to those in which wine connoisseurs discuss the vintage of '97. …

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