Travels with Chaparro - a letter from the Sierra

Jan and Chaparro near Cumbres de San Bartolome. Photo: Paul Barham.
Jan and Chaparro near Cumbres de San Bartolome. Photo: Paul Barham.
The tree-clad hills of Spain's Sierra de Huelva retain their beauty, wildlife and traditions, writes Jan Nimmo, who has speant a decade exploring the area on horseback. Just one thing is missing: the throngs of people that once inhabited and managed the land.
People only a generation older than me recall the paths as being sociable places, where people from different towns and villages greeted one another and exchanged local news and gossip passing through the farms along the way.

An uncharacteristically green part of Andalusia, the Sierra de Huelva forms the western end of the Sierra Morena, the line of hills running from Portugal in the west through the northern provinces of Andalusia.

It defines also the boundary between Andalusia and the vast open landscapes of Extremadura. Most of the Sierra - apart from the areas still exploited for the region's rich mineral wealth - now forms part of the Natural Park of the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche.

You can take a white horse anywhere.....

How I got there is a long story - let's just say that after a close shave filming on the picket lines of Ecuador, I decided life was too short for more of that.

And when I got the chance to buy Chaparro - a beautiful Andalusian gelding - there was no way I would say no. I'd waited 40 years to have horse of my own. After all, miner's daughters didn't have horses!

For the last ten years I've been lucky enough to spend chunks of time exploring the drove roads and bridle paths of the Sierra Morena on horseback.

Rides can last anything from three hours to five days and the countless kilometres covered with Chaparro have given me the opportunity to meet and make friends with people who have shared with me something of their intimate understanding of the landscape and local history.

The land of wild cork

Cork oaks have been in the picture throughout our travels, from San Calixto in Cordoba to the Sierra Norte de Sevilla, into Extremadura and as far as Barrancos in Portugal. Cork is part of the culture - even in Chaparro's name, which means wild cork oak.

On horseback you see things differently, and Chaparro has been instrumental to my meeting and getting to know the folk who live and work in the Sierra and who care about the country they live in. This is especially true of some of the older serranos whose recollections span three quarters of a century of changes.

I have found paths described to me by old men in bars who had not walked them for 50 years, paths open but now overgrown and neglected. And I am moved by the accuracy of the description, such recognisable detail after so many years absence.

They tell me the paths are the veins of the Sierra - or used to be when transport was on foot or on hoof. Today these same paths are in danger of being closed, either through neglect or the willful self-interest of land-owners.

An cultural landscape

The beauty of this landscape had always struck me but what I did not understand was how it had come about. It is a partially abandoned landscape, part overgrown and tumbledown - romantic, but to the farmer, an abhorrence. This was not a wild forest but the result of generations of hard work, and a unique pattern of arboriculture suited to the climate, the terrain and the needs of its people.

However, the Sierra has been vulnerable to external pressures - in the past civil war and hunger, then migration to the cities and industrial centres of Europe, and now threatened by changes in land ownership, enclosure, commodity values and the present economic crisis.

People only a generation older than me recall the paths as being sociable places, where people from different towns and villages greeted one another and exchanged local news and gossip passing through the farms along the way.

As in many parts of southern and western Spain the traditional mode of agricultural practice has been that of the "dehesa", which has evolved to sustain a diverse mixed agriculture on poor soils in a climate of hot dry summers.

This has created an open, pastoral woodland which supports both cork oaks (Quercus Suber) and holm oaks (Quercus Ilex). Both trees are evergreens, providing essential shade in summer, and food in winter for livestock.

An agro-ecological paradise

They also stabilise the soil, while the livestock recycle their foliage to improve the fertility of the land. The grasslands blossom into resplendent wildflower meadows in spring, supporting a wealth of pollinating insects, birds and other fauna.

This is an open forest with a delicate balance between light and shade, plant and animal, and according to local cork expert Miguel Ángel Benítez Benítez - with the barest hint of exaggeration - this is the most bio-diverse place in the world outside Amazonia.

The Sierra is home to genets, otters, deer, wild boar, mongooses, and in the course of the year sees almost 200 bird species including imperial eagles, griffon and black vultures, eagle owls, black storks and bee-eaters. People younger than me remember hearing the wolves at night. The last one was shot in Valdelarco in the late 1960s.

Grazed by hardy pigs and cattle

These woodlands are grazed by a variety of livestock, including merino sheep, goats, handsome red retinta cattle, vacas bravas (breeding fighting bulls) and the black Iberian pigs.

The sweet, highly nutritious acorns of the alcornoque (cork oak) and the encina (holm oak) are valued as fodder for livestock, especially the Iberian pigs whose meat and cured ham (jamón serrano) is sold at a premium.

The Sierra de Huelva boasts of arguably the best 'pata negra de bellotain the whole of Spain. This free range, slowly produced, luxury ham is currently suffering from the effects of the economic downturn and many jobs have been lost locally.

Old chestnuts

One of my friends, Emilio "de la Huerta Grande" Antunes Tristancho worked in the cork harvest and still manages and coppices his own chestnut trees.

Emilio is 79 years old but still can be seen in winter time high up in a chestnut tree, axe in hand, no harness, delicately removing this branch or that. His son and grandson are working further down the same tree and his daughter, Emilia, is building a bonfire of the brash.

Sweet chestnut trees are found in ancient plantations, especially on the higher ground in the centre of the Natural Park, and give their name to the Park's highest hill, Cerro del Castaño, (hill of the chestnut). Some of the trees have been coppiced for centuries for the wood, equalled only by oak in its durability for construction, fencing, gates etc.

Many of the chestnut trees have grafts of up to four different varieties growing on the one tree. This ensures the owners of the castañares that at least one of their varieties will bear fruit.

Chestnuts provide food for livestock in autumn and in the past were dried and ground to make flour. Today the produce is marketed in Galaroza through one of only two chestnut co-operatives in Spain (the other one is in Ronda) although now both co-operatives face fierce undercutting from chestnuts from Turkey.

A long term decline in rainfall

Traditionally crops such as oats, barley, chick peas and broad beans were planted in areas of this open woodland which weren't being grazed. This surprised me because none of these crops are grown any more. Lack of rainfall at key times of year may be one reason for that.

According to local testimony there has been a long-term change in the climate and the rainfall in the past was much higher than today. My late friend, Tobías López García, described how 60 years ago his father could be rained off for weeks during spring.

Ex-director of the Natural Park, Rafael Hernández Mancha believes it is too early to say whether this change is due to human impacts or is part of the natural Mediterranean climatic cycle.

Orchards and kitchen gardens

If the dehesa typifies the open landscapes then the outskirts of the towns and villages are marked by the huertas and orchards.

Huertas or kitchen gardens, although in decline and often showing signs of neglect or more permanent abandonment, are characteristic of the boundaries between the towns and villages of the Sierra and the surrounding countryside, stretching out into the fields along the ancient lanes.

Nothing much happens in the huertas over the winter apart from sowing broad beans. They come to life in the spring with the sowing the typical crops - lettuces, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, beans, courgettes, aubergines, melons and pumpkins (used as feed for livestock in the winter).

Growers used to cultivate chickpeas too but this is something that I haven't seen in the ten years that I have known the Sierra. Beyond the huertas lie the orchards. Many of these are also neglected, with apples left to rot in the autumn - a sad sight, but a bonus for the wildlife or the occasional passing horse.

Local produce is local identity

The fruits grown in the orchards are often specific to a particular town or village - peaches in La Nava, apples in Galaroza - where differences in microclimate or the abundance or otherwise of water may favour one fruit or another. Other fruits seen in the summer are early figs (brevas) and cherries, in the autumn figs and walnuts, and in the winter, persimmons.

Settlement in the Sierra is marked by a concentration of large villages and smaller aldeas between the towns of Aracena and Cortegana. Folk are known by the produce that their village was famed for - Los Paperos (potato growers) from Fuenteheridos, Los Cebolleros (onion growers) from Aracena, Los Cachoneros (apple growers) from Galaroza and Los Colmeneros (bee keepers) from Valdelarco.

These names show how local produce was integral to the communities' identity and the importance of local trade between villages before the modern era.

Families also carry nicknames from generation to generation, often deriving from a particular skill or product (although sometimes the meaning has been lost in the course of time). The friend who looks after Chaparro, Iluminado Tristancho, carries the family nickname, Lechuguino, appropriately enough since he also grows very fine lettuces.

La Cuadrilla - the corking gang

Over the last three years I have been gathering still and moving images of cork and the people who are involved in the nine year cycle of the cork harvest. This is a slow burning project which I plan to make into a documentary and an exhibition.

In the course of collecting this information I have got to know Francisco 'Kiko' Muñiz and his cuadrilla or team. Kiko and his team are young men, but they use the traditional tools of the cork forester, the short-handled, wide-bladed axe and long wooden pole for prizing off the cork, la burja.

Cutting the cork is a delicate skill but one which still requires physical strength and stamina. You have to know where to cut and not cut too deeply - which could damage the tree and make it susceptible to the various diseases and parasites, which can take advantage of the freshly exposed, flesh-coloured wood below the cork.

The cork has to be cut in the heat of summer (with the first cut of young cork, the bornizo, being carried out in May). Many of the people who cut cork in summer also pollard chestnuts in winter.

An important member of the cuadrilla is the arriero (muleteer), Francisco. Mules and donkeys are a more effective means of removing the cork from the steep hillsides than any wheeled or tracked vehicle.

Hundreds of mules have disappeared from the Sierra in recent years so it is a happy sight to see these animals so well looked after and doing the work for which they have been trained. A working mule can command a higher price than a good-looking horse.

Burr oak - 'cucharos'

Much prized by the harvesters are the cucharos - the knobbly burrs measuring up to a metre across which can be cut from the tree in one piece, to serve as receptacles for a variety of uses, depending on their size.

Cucharos have been used since time immemorial as drinking cups beside watering troughs and as mortars for making gazpacho. Emilio bathed all his children in a cucharo and Manuel Santos Carvajal, one of Kiko's cuadrilla, also remembers being washed in a cucharo as an infant.

Today the cuadrillas have to deal with the problem of illegal removal of the prized burrs, often before the nine years growth has developed and causing sometimes irreparable damage to the trees. This is of course also theft but in a remote region this is a crime which goes unpunished.

Samuel, Kiko's son, enjoys being with the cuadrilla during school holidays and seems to be in his element learning the skills from the older men and enjoying the banter and singing of the cuadrilla.

Decline accelerated by bureaucratic stupidity

While it is great to see this resurgence and the resilience of the cuadrilla, the underlying trend is towards decline and the overwhelming feeling is one of crisis - a crisis facing all of Spain, where no-one can afford rural tourism, jamón serrano or fine wine with corks.

The cork industry is under threat from screw-tops and plastic corks backed by petro-dollars - and New World and European wine makers whose corporate lobbyists have even tried to discredit the cork industry on the utterly false premise that it destroys forests.

The Natural Park has a defined role in the protection of the environment but from what I have seen in practice this is marred by ignorance and petty bureaucracy.

Commercial developments and publicly funded enterprise initiatives appear out of nowhere in the park - dehesa ripped up to lay out an industrial estate with no industry, while smallholders are fined for clearing brushwood and brambles from the paths that lead to their farms - when what they are doing is protecting the park from forest fires.

The relationship between the Natural Park and small farmers is not helped by a set of park regulations based on a very different Mediterranean woodland, Los Alcornocales Natural Park, in the province of Cadiz.

Lonely as a cloud

Today I can ride for a whole day and hardly see a soul - a beautiful way to enjoy nature but not what the paths were made for.

People only a generation older than me recall the paths as being sociable places, where people from different towns and villages greeted one another and exchanged local news and gossip passing through the farms along the way.

Long hours talking to Tobías about the abandoned steadings along the paths has brought these places to life for me. Though sometimes now no more than a pile of stones these are places people lived in less than fifty years ago.

In some places entire hillsides have been turned into eucalyptus plantations - economic monoculture which effectively closes off large areas of the land.

Keeping the old ways open

Very recently I experienced a 'Get off my land' incident in a eucalyptus plantation - on a path that I've ridden at least forty times. I have had to pass through there, as do local farmers, because the legitimate drove road has been padlocked.

A handful of people like me pass through the paths on horseback, on foot or on bicycle. Riding the paths keeps these rights of way open but it is an uphill struggle.

Here there is no right of access as in Scotland but there are various classes of path and drove road whose statutory definition and protection dates from the days when these were the economic arteries of Spain. Yet some old paths remain padlocked or fenced across with barbed wire - with no action by the authorities to keep the paths open.

There are legitimate arguments that the paths make livestock vulnerable to rustling and poaching, now that so many people have quad bikes and 4x4 vehicles. But these arguments only hold against a backdrop of an under-populated landscape with no-one employed to guard the livestock.

And often the land is closed off purely for the interests of hunters. Does that sound familiar?



Jan Nimmo is a Scottish artist and filmmaker. Her woodcut portraits and documentary films highlight her interest in oral history and the politics of food, from a forgotten coalmine in Kintyre to the banana plantations of Latin America and Central Africa. Find out more at