The closest many people ever get to a Cork Oak tree will be when handling a cork from a newly opened bottle of wine or removing the stopper of an olive oil bottle. It’s amazing to think that these cork stoppers were once growing as tree bark around a Cork Oak somewhere here in the Mediterranean.
Eastwards from Portugal through Spain, the south of France, Italy and also Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia stretch 2.5 million hectares of Cork Oak forests. These forests provide some of the most ecologically diverse habitats in the world. Up to 135 different plant species have been found in just one square metre of forest including 30 different types of bracken. In Spain/Portugal the rarest cat species in the world the Iberian Lynx lives in these forests and Barbary Apes live in the oak forests of North Africa. Almost all of Europe’s Crane population use the forests for shelter and breeding. In Cadiz Province especially, the Cranes nests can be seen atop chimneys and electric pylons, the birds revisit each year to repair and re-use them.
The biology of the Cork Oak means that it’s more fire resistant than other tree species, the cork protects the trunk and main branches tree from any wildfire. Afterwards new shoots and leaves sprout quickly again from the tree and the canopy is restored. Other tree species sprout again from their bases or from seed so the oak has a clear evolutionary advantage.
As well as providing a haven for wildlife the oak forests create quality soil and also reduce soil erosion from the wind and rain is absorbed into the rich soil easily. This also reduces erosion downstream from the forests as storm water runoff is greatly reduced. Hydroelectric schemes and reservoirs benefit from cleaner water so increasing safety and efficiency.
In Andalucía 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are stored in all its forests. Every year about 10 million tonnes of CO2 are absorbed by the oak forests alone – they really are the green lungs of the Mediterranean and vital for all our wellbeing. Because it’s renewing its bark, during its lifetime a harvested Cork Oak will store five times more carbon than a non-harvested tree.
The cork is hand harvested by up to 5 people per tree using small axes; a tree will be about 25 years old when it’s first cropped. The trees live for about 200 years and can be harvested every 10-12 years. 300,000 tonnes of cork is produced each year in Europe with half of that coming from Portugal. All those wine corks add up to about 50,000 tonnes with the rest used mainly for flooring, olive oil stoppers and footwear. This equates to a billion Euros in business turnover a year and 30,000 jobs.
Having worked in the wine trade and being keen on preserving our environment, I only buy wine that has a natural cork. There is a romance about opening a bottle of wine and some things should be left as they are. Plastic stoppers and metal screw tops as alternatives use up the earths finite resources and create unnecessary landfill. Plus without the cork being harvested these beautiful and vital habitats will suffer.
I was amongst these splendid trees recently in Grazalema, near Ronda. The cork had just been harvested in the tres surrounding me, so the tannins in the newly exposed trunks made them burn bright red in the autumnal late afternoon sunshine. No wonder it’s called the ‘golden hour’ by photographers as the woods were filled with an almost magical light.