Cork oak forests: habitats for abundant and diverse life.
Every cork oak tree counts. On an individual scale each cork oak is a particularly efficient carbon sink, that can be repeatedly harvested for a valuable crop over lifespans that span generations. In each individual tree there is economic and environmental value, but sometimes you have to zoom out to realize something’s true impact. Unlike most commercially-valuable plant species, cork oaks exist as part of complete and healthy ecosystems, growing in forests in mediterranean Europe and north Africa. The cork oaks themselves are essential to the health of these forests, providing natural habitat for countless other species to thrive. Because no trees are cut down when cork is harvested from their bark, they can continue to play their crucial role in an ecosystem that supports life on a huge scale. But what makes them so essential to the ecosystems that
Growing up to 20 meters (65 feet) tall, cork oaks help reduce wind speeds. This minimizes soil erosion as well as reducing the drying of their environment through wind-fuelled evaporation and transpiration. Cork oaks also intercept a quarter of all precipitation, meaning they reduce water runoff and the soil erosion it can cause. Their dense treetops protect everything beneath them from the extreme seasonal heat and cold, forming a microclimate within the forests where less hardy species can thrive. Cork oaks’ extensive root systems also access deeper nutrients than smaller plants, bringing them to the surface and fuelling growth. With the protection of the towering trees, a great diversity of plants can grow in the undergrowth.
All this means that in cork oak forests as many as 135 different plant species can be found in a single square meter.
All this means that in cork oak forests as many as 135 different plant species can be found in a single square meter! And that’s just the plants. The forests are home to numerous animal species, including some of the earth’s most beautiful and endangered creatures like the Iberian Lynx and the Iberian Imperial Eagle.
While these regal creatures may be the most famous, many more humble call the forests home. From snakes, deer, boars and mongooses to spiders, toads, skinks and geckos, life abounds beneath the cork oaks’ branches. It’s thanks to the protection of the forests’ tall trees that these creatures can survive in the harsh Mediterranean climate, and many are found nowhere else on earth.
While some live in the forests year-round, the microclimate the forests present is also crucial to many seasonal visitors. Have you ever dreamt of having a holiday home in Spain or Portugal that you could retreat to in the cold winter months? For millions of migratory birds, the cork oak forests are exactly that. Many species like the common crane retreat from the icy winters of northern Europe to spend the cold months in the refuge of the cork oak forests. For others, the forests are crucial points for resting and foraging as they make their long trek south into Africa.
For all their incredible value, cork oak forests will only survive if we continue to support the cork industry. Find brands that use natural cork stoppers on ReCORK's CORKwatch database.