Cork oak forests support one of the highest levels of biodiversity among forest habitats, as well as the highest diversity of plants found anywhere in the world.
In cork oak landscapes, plant diversity can reach 135 species every square meter; many have aromatic, culinary, or medicinal value.
Cork oak landscapes contain more than 30 different brackens, some of them very rare, and cork oak microflora many species of fungus.
The fertile undergrowth is thick with heathers, leguminous plants, rock roses, and herbs.
Countless millions of wintering birds from northern Europe, including virtually the entire common-crane population, shelter in cork oak landscapes in the Mediterranean.
Storks, kites, vultures, buzzards, and booted and short-toed eagles gather at bottlenecks like the straits of Gibraltar and Messina and the Bosphorus, where they can climb in thermals and cross safely.
Nearby cork oak forests are a vital haven, like the Los Alcornocales Nature Reserve in Andalusia.
Cork oak landscapes also provide crucial ecological services.
Water erosion is also less in areas below upland forests that intercept rainfall, while reservoirs linked to irrigation and hydroelectric installations are protected from eroded soil.
Cork oak landscapes store carbon, reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially in the early years of their life when they grow fast. In Spain, the Andalusian forests store more than 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, of which cork oak trees store nearly 11 per cent.
Cork oak trees store carbon in order to regenerate their bark, and a harvested cork oak tree absorbs up to five times more than one that is not. (WWF)
Precious and versatile Habitat Mosaics
The cork oak landscapes are mosaics of forest habitats, comprising cork, holm and deciduous oak species, stone and maritime pines, wild olive trees, maquis, and pasture.
The habitats have been ranked among the most valuable in Europe and are listed in the European Council Habitats Directive.
In total the western Mediterranean produces about 300,000 tonnes of cork each year.
Portugal is by far the most important cork producer. About 60 per cent of cork production now comes from there.
Cork oak landscapes are one of the best examples of balanced conservation and development anywhere in the world. They also play a key role in ecological processes such as water retention, soil conservation, and carbon storage.
Their conservation is crucial.