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More resilient forests to climate change by combining forestry production and grazing

  • NEIKER technology center will demonstrate the increase of forest resilience through the silvopastoral system
  • This practice consists of combining forest production and grazing on the same area of land
  • Among other benefits, it reduces the risk of fire and, in turn, improves the economic, social and environmental profitability of forests

Climate change is causing significant detrimental effects on European forests and forest fires are one of the greatest threats. This problem affected 340,000 hectares in the European Union in 2021, according to the annual report published by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC). The document also stresses that this trend will continue this year.

In this context, the NEIKER technology center, a member of the Basque Research and Technology Alliance (BRTA), is looking for new methods to make forests in the Atlantic and sub-Atlantic areas more resistant to climate change, while at the same time using forests for livestock, preventing fires, increasing biodiversity and guaranteeing the provision of ecosystem services (such as regulating the flow of water or protecting the soil). This initiative, which has just begun and will run until 2027, focuses on the application of silvopastoral measures that also promote the development of the rural and local economy. In other words, forest production and grazing are combined on the same area of land to create opportunities and increase profitability.

These systems are often associated with the Mediterranean landscape and their presence in the Atlantic and sub-Atlantic regions has been disappearing despite their great potential for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

To this end, the LIFE Silfore study will develop a network of demonstrators in 4 regions of the Atlantic-sub-Atlantic area covering a total of 92.4 hectares: in northern Portugal, Galicia, Asturias and Euskadi. This will include a large part of the ecological variety of forests in the Atlantic-sub-Atlantic and socio-economic areas.

Specifically, two demonstrations are planned for the Basque Country. The first, in the Biscayan municipality of Orozko, focuses on transforming a pine forest into a mixed forest and introducing animals. The second, on the other hand, implements silvopastoralism in broadleaf oak forests, characteristic of the sub-Atlantic area of the Basque Country, in Jauregi and Azilu (Álava).

Isabel Albizu, project coordinator and researcher at NEIKER’s Natural Resources Conservation Department, foresees among the results “a 40-60% reduction in the volume of combustible biomass” and, therefore, “a lower risk of fires, as well as a reduction in the carbon footprint of livestock farms”. She adds that the project will contribute to “increasing hthe diversity of tree species with different drought tolerances, which will help maintain the forest stand and reduce the spread of tree diseases”.

Resilient forests and increased profits

In addition to demonstrating the increased resilience of forests to the effects of climate change, the project will diversify the earnings of forested areas from timber harvesting and animal production. “Grazing can bring benefits to forest production with the fertilization of soils by animals, and the increased area under grazing can increase the degree of forage autonomy and diversity of the animals’ diets, resulting in considerable savings by reducing feed costs,” Albizu explains. In addition, the demonstrations are carried out with animals of endangered native breeds that are rustic and well adapted to the environment. In the case of the Basque Country, these are Terreña cows and Sasi Ardi sheep, as well as pottokas.

The LIFE Silfore project will also have a positive impact on society as a whole, since forests occupy approximately 30% of the land and act as reservoirs of biodiversity. They provide a wide range of key ecosystem services, such as regulating water flow or protecting against soil erosion, among others.

Therefore, the initiative will improve the economic, social and environmental profitability of forests while increasing the earnings of rural dwellers by creating employment, fighting against depopulation of rural areas, reducing the risk of fires and lowering maintenance costs.

Led by NEIKER, LIFE Silfore has the participation of 4 partners: Bragança Polytechnic Institute (Portugal), Galician Agency for Food Quality, Regional Service for Agri-Food Research and Development of the Principality of Asturias and University of Santiago de Compostela. In addition, in the Basque Country, the administrations owning and managing the forest stands (Orozko City Council and the Administrative Boards of Jauregi and Azilu for the demonstrations in the Basque Country) and the managing administrations (Forestry Directorate of the Provincial Council of Bizkaia and Alava) are involved.

The LIFE Silfore project, which has a total budget of 2,599,081.36€, is aligned both with the general objectives of the LIFE program and with the priorities of the LIFE Climate Action subprogram.