Spanish farms are revitalising their land on the hoof. Sacha Bernal Coates and Kerry Wolters explain how the herd instinct holds back the desert.
Manuel’s ranch is an hour’s drive inland from the Atlantic coast in the province of Cadiz in southern Spain. The area is known for its livestock, wine and production of cork. But these industries are on a decline, thanks to the diminishing productivity of the land due to desertification.
Manuel took over the reins of his family’s 470-hectare ranch in 2015 after his father died. With no previous agricultural experience, he was staring at 240 hectares of land that had deteriorated after decades of modern agricultural practices. The remaining 230 hectares was bare, crusty and rocky terrain on which abandoned, wild olive trees were slowly drying out. The cause: erosion in some parts and oxidised, overgrown underbrush in others.
Most Spanish farms rely on subsidies under Europe’s common agricultural policy for 30-40% of their revenues while another 5-10% comes from hunting. However, on Manuel’s ranch, wild rabbit and partridge populations have been reduced by disease and a decreasing water supply. His ranch has a two-hectare reservoir, which no longer holds water due to sediment accumulation from erosion.
Manuel wants to restore the land, bring back the flora and fauna. He aims to diversify and increase the number of economic activities associated with the land, including tourism and traditional activities. For this, he has taken a path followed by nobody else in the area: holistic management.
It involves the production of high-quality beef through a cattle management process adapted to fit the realities of his environment. The process tackles environmental deficiencies like erosion, runoff and desertification while making the land productive. “We want to see clear water flowing through the ranch for most of the year,” says Manuel.