Rise from the ashes

by Bas Lerink, supported by Judit Torres and Iñigo Oleagordia Montaña

The sun peaks over the roof of Cathedral Santa Maria as I make my way downtown the city of León. The huge stained-glass windows light up in red and yellow, as a promise for a hot day. I am meeting our Spanish SUPERB colleagues in their CESEFOR office, to catch up with recent activities in our SUPERB demonstration site. It is great to meet again with the demo representatives Judit Torres (CESEFOR) and Iñigo Oleagordia Montaña (Junta CyL) and to get to know Rafael, the forest manager of the El Bierzo sites. A lot has happened since we last met, so we take the time to discuss the events of the past weeks.

The Castilla y León demo gives a fascinating insight in the relationship between men and bear. The aim of the demo is to improve the habitat of the brown bear, while simultaneously engaging the rural population. If not challenging enough, there is always the lurking danger of forest fires in the region. Two weeks ago, Judit organised the demo’s stakeholder workshop, uniting friend, and foe of the bear. They discussed the forest restoration measures planned by the local partners, with room for adjustments. The presence of the brown bear can incidentally trouble activities of the local population, especially for beekeepers. But they already found a solution by subsidising e.g. electric fencing around the beehives, to fend off curious bears with a sweet tooth. In the coming weeks, the workplan will be finalised, with detailed descriptions of the restoration measures on specific sites, and I am already curious to read them.

Stand with excessive regeneration
Mature stand with barn owl nest

Meanwhile, we finish our discussions in the CESEFOR office and hit the road to El Bierzo region, where the sites are located. We pick up Santiago, forest ranger of the Igüeña site, which we will visit first. In the selected stands, our local partners will carry out silvicultural measures to improve the habitat of the brown bear. This involves thinning out dense Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) stands to create easier passage, while in Pyrenean oak (Quercus pyrenaica) stands trees are selected to increase acorn production. In recently burned stands, they plan enrichment planting to provide new shelter. Judit drives us in CESEFOR’s 4×4 Landcruiser to the different stands of the Igüeña site.

The stands have been chosen based on a gradient of degradation, e.g. from severely degraded, up until the ideal reference situation. We visit a recently burned stand, where the blackened trees clearly indicate where the fire blazed. Where possible, they plan some enrichment plantings to help this stand to recover. Iñigo explains how current management shifted from creating large ‘cortafuegos’ (long clear-felled strips), to decreasing the available fuel in the stands. This was decided because the cortafuegos deform the landscape, have to be maintained a lot and are often not effective for crown fires.

The cortafuegos are visible as long brown strips (photo: Bas Lerink)

The middle section of the chronosequence consists of Pyreneanoakstands with overdue management. Santiago takes us to a dense stand with very slender trees and a blanket of oak root regeneration, prone to fire. Right next to it is a reference stand, where low thinning and enrichment planting of e.g. rowan and whitebeam (Sorbus aucuparia and S. aria) were successful. Santiago shows us a picture that he took here 20 years ago of a big capercaillie, which were once abundant in these forests. The end of the chronosequence is a fantastic mature stand of Pyreneanoakwith many microhabitats. The trees have large crowns, capable of producing lots of acorns for the brown bear and the forest structure is resilient to forest fires. Iñigo is clear on his goal: ‘In the future, most of the forest area of El Bierzo will look like this’.

Happy with what we have seen, we head for an old molino where Santiago used to mill back in the days, but which is now transformed to a restaurant. We enjoy a tasty lunch with local ingredients and then drive up in the mountain range to see the Corullón site. In the midst of a 200-hectare soto (orchard) of sweet chestnut trees, there is a burned patch of a few hectares. Here, our local SUPERB team will plant new grafted chestnut trees to increase the production of sweet chestnut. With this measure, Judit, Iñigo and their colleagues aim at engaging the rural population, as sweet chestnuts are valued a lot by the local people.

While the sun sets behind the Corullón mountain ridges, we call it a day. In the past 12 hours, we have seen the challenges that the Castilla y León demo has to face. However, above all, we have also discovered great opportunities to restore the forest lands, for men and bear. This demo is one to watch!

Featured image: SUPERB demo area with sweet chestnut orchard on the right side, with holm oak on the left (southward facing) side of the slope (photo: Bas Lerink)