The Use of the Land

The current configuration of land uses in the proposed territory is highly diverse, arising from the existence of specific areas with very specific conditions, where, in turn, certain peculiarities have been accentuated, modelled by an unequal human use, which dates back to prehistoric times.

The omnipresence of the rivers belonging to the Upper Miño, is a common feature in these landscapes, where its inhabitants have sought from time immemorial the proximity of watercourses to establish settlements, and have developed numerous ways to harness this resource: “caneiros” (small river reservoirs) for fishing, mills driven by water power, blacksmiths..., and it is noticeable how the human presence and traditional resource use since ancient times have contributed greatly to the preservation of natural and cultural values of Terras do Miño until today.

The historic architecture of this landscape has evolved over time according to the different geological eras succeeded.

From pollen records, it has been established that climatic changes at the beginning of the Holocene represented a significant alteration of the landscape in this territory, favouring the regional expansion of forests. Deciduous tree formations, essentially oak and hazelnut, continued the pioneering work of birches, colonizing most of the lower floors of the mountainous belt bounding the area.

Thus, between 8500-8000 years ago, climax arboreal vegetation was fully consolidated in the region; in turn, in areas prone to flooding, such as Terra Chá, birches also constituted riparian communities of certain extension, so that only part of the summits of the main mountain ranges remained deforested, as well as certain environments in which the particular weather or substrate conditions favoured the settlement of communities otherwise not related to the zone: limnetic, shrublands and grasslands ecosystems.

The wind and excess of humidity that characterize the sub-littoral ranges that surround the area to the north and west, not only restricted tree colonization, but also, in turn, their hyperhumid conditions, along with the flattened topography of their summits, favoured the proliferation of humid moor environments. This kind of landscape architecture, alien to regional climatic parameters, still remains in force today in some of the mountains nearer to the coast.

The archaeological remains from various sites located in the vicinity of the Ranges of Xistral and Cadramón, confirm the existence of epipaleolithic settlements in this territory. The hunting and gathering activity of these first settlers caused significant disruptions in some localities, but overall, they do not seem to have represented a significant transformation of the landscape in this region.

In several wetland areas, it has been recorded a period of strong development of woody elements of both shrub (Myrica, Erica) and tree (Betula, Alnus, Salix) during the mid-Holocene, these species came to invade some of the peat deposits located at lower altitudes, as has been documented in the port of A Gañidoira (Range of Xistral, Lugo), in which the high percentages of Betula recorded between 6895-3735 BP, and the presence of abundant woody macrorremains attest the implantation of birch on the surface of the wetland.

At the end of the Middle Holocene, the adoption of agricultural (slash-based on the use of fire) and livestock techniques occurs, and although at first the anthropic pressure on the natural environment was quite small, the further development and boom of Chalcolithic cultures of the Bronze and Iron Age resulted in a marked deforestation of the territory.

All this interval would be marked by the progressive need to increase the spaces dedicated to agriculture and livestock, in order to meet the demands arising from population growth. In turn, mining and metallurgy associated with it, with the consequent consumption of wood and charcoal these activities represent, started in the Bronze Age, later escalating during the Iron Age and Roman Times.

According to pollen records, in valleys and depressions the tree minimum is previous to the Romanization, which began in the Iberian NW in a time when a large part of the forests had already disappeared, replaced by thickets, meadows and arable land.

However, in the more remote areas of the northern mountains, high deforestation is not recorded until the Middle Ages.

During the feudal regime (IX and X centuries), rural settlement begins with a colonizing purpose. Population growth led to an evolution of agriculture towards intensification, as shown in the documentation for this period on the existence of biennial rye-fallow rotations, or rye with millet or turnips in the territory of Terras do Miño.

The continuous growth in population, recorded from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, had among other consequences an increase of human pressure on forests, in search of new land and raw materials. In this period, the statutory system was established in Galicia with a major impact on the structure of ownership, ways of agrarian organization and land use.

An increased demand for building materials and the start of a series of activities, including the creation of shipyards in different ports of Biscay and the Atlantic or proliferation of forges is recorded; and a new phase of deep regression from forests starts.

This trend was accentuated in subsequent years and reached its maximum intensity throughout the sixteenth century, with the need to maintain contact with the overseas territories and the effort to dominate maritime trade.

Many of the mountains of this area eventually became areas of scrub, which in recent centuries have played a major role in the agriculture of the region.

Actually, it was only from the years 1959-1960 when traditional modes of operation of the land began to be abandoned.

Previously, the traditional forms of exploitation included various characteristic handling practices which eventually became one of the main unifying elements of the landscape.

The “estivadas” or clearances, consisting of ploughing, burning and digging areas of uncultivated land to obtain a cereal crop, founded on the use of fire, were aimed at obtaining a single crop, whether it was rye or wheat; although since the late nineteenth century and especially after 1920, two successive harvests began to be obtained thanks to the use of scoria and superphosphate deforestation.

The aim of this operation was once the harvest was obtained, the renewal of gorse and broom cover, whose seeds were sown and germinated after the grain harvest. This was practised in hills, upland elements or portions of gentle slopes, rather than steep slopes or pronounced gradients.

Resting phases were set according to the quality of the hill and the possibilities it offered.

Another practice of considerable importance was the one placed in temporary crop, carried out during several consecutive years, according to a rye-fallow rotation in cycles of 6-10 years, after which the soil was left and went to be invaded by spontaneous vegetation. Between 12-30 years later, always longer periods than the beginning of cropping periods, the rye-fallow cycles were resumed.

In turn, the scrubland has traditionally been exploited to produce the dead leaves, cut plants (“esquilmo”) or manure (plant remains of dry gorse, broom...), essential to the bed of the animals and to achieve abundant manure, and therefore, essential for an agricultural system based on careful exploitation of reduced arable areas and on the intensity of human labour.

Thus, the gorse was cut and allowed to dry for several days in the hill; then it was transported to the house where the gorse for fuel consumption (more lignified) was separated from the “estrume” (gorse of 3 to 6 years). Two types of manure were obtained, the cold or “corredoira” (where gorse is piled and left to rot and trample in narrow paths or roads) and the warm or cutting (which was produced in courts or stables), of a higher quality.

Thus, over the centuries, one of the biggest concerns of rural communities has been the preservation, if not the renewal and growth of the bushes, understood as manure reserves .

To exploit a hectare of farmland following a balanced system, an average of an area of scrub, old gorse or “ulagales” (gorse) included, were needed. They had to be of one to two ha ensuring the necessary fertility of that agricultural hectare.

Moreover, over the centuries, areas of scrub have permanently been immense land for livestock grazing and, in particular, in mountain areas grazing was common in semi-liberty.

The cows grazing in the mountain has represented an essential complement to the grass in meadows and fodder from arable land.

Horses are also great users of the moor, and the practice of horse breeding in the mountain still remains in a free grazing form with or without locks on the legs. In the case of goats and sheep, their livelihood was primarily based on the use of scrub next to the houses.

Finally, the moors were also a complementary supply of fodder, since after cutting and coarsely chopping the new shoots of gorse, or crushing and mixing with hay or green grass in other occasions, they were offered to domestic livestock.

The sub-present dynamics has been founded on the introduction of new agricultural and forest species. The increase in percentages of Pinus observed in the most recent pollen zones is due to plantations and reforestation initiated prior to the eighteenth century.

At the beginning of this century, massive reforestation –mainly with Pinus pinaster Aiton—, which made the pine be the dominant tree formation in some areas. Recently other species have continued to spread, such as Pinus radiata D. Don, to the hinterlands.

The first effect that these reforestations had was the prohibition or restriction of “estivadas”, for the obvious fire risk posed and the ban on free grazing during the first years after restocking.

The importation of flora from new continents, has also led to the arrival of other exotic crops (corn, potato, eucalyptus) that have replaced traditional ones. So corn (millet) spread rapidly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in this territory from the areas where millet (small millet) was used traditionally, completely replacing it. Currently, it is one of the most important crops in Galicia, mainly to obtain feed, though initially its goal was to be used exclusively for human consumption –elaboration of “broa” bread, a type of cornbread.

The potato, however, also introduced in the eighteenth century, needed a longer adaptation process to the conditions of soil and climate, trials of different varieties with better organoleptic properties and overcoming the opposition of the leasehold owners to use, since they could not get its production tithes.

That is why its final expansion did not occur until the mid-nineteenth century, from a use for fattening porcine livestock to be used primarily for human consumption, replacing the nut (until the expansion of potato it was a fundamental product both for human consumption and for the food of pigs) and even influencing the abandonment of fallow.

The twentieth century meant the elimination of the leasehold system in Galicia with the Law of Redemption of Forums Primo de Rivera in 1926, which led to the disappearance of impositions on crops (usually the leasehold owners demanded that the tithe was paid in a certain amount wheat and rye) and land use in deciding what crops should even go in every land.

This brought the final conquest of potato and corn on agricultural land, which, once placed on crop rotations, entailed changes in traditional forms of exploitation and, therefore, the gradual disappearance of the forms of agricultural organization that lost their reason for being as a result.

The rural exodus and temporary migration to the countries of Western Europe during the second half of the twentieth century, disorganised and decreased families and drastically reduced labour, causing a regression of traditional crop rotations in cultivation, according to a rye-fallow rate –which, in spite of this, still remain in Terras do Miño.

Traditional systems of utilisation and ancestral exploitation mentioned above, live pieces of the history of the relationship between human beings and the environment, are kept in Terras do Miño, mainly in mountainous areas, where environmental constraints only allow this type of uses.

The importation of flora from new continents has also led to the arrival of other exotic crops besides maize and potato, such as Eucalyptus, which have replaced traditional ones.

The Eucalyptus, which was introduced in the nineteenth century as an ornamental species, has expanded massively in the Galician territory from the second half of the twentieth century.

The distribution of eucalyptus in Galicia until the 1990s covered approximately all the coastal areas, being the main species planted the Eucalyptus globulus. This species, going deep into the hinterland found a key factor that slowed its expansion: low temperatures and frost recorded at altitudes above 400-450 m. This is the reason why this species is almost absent in the territory of Terras do Miño (95% of the territory has a higher altitude than 400 m) compared to the coastal areas.

The strong economic performance of this species in relation to other forest species represented high investments in research by companies producing paper pulp, finding other cold-resistant species, among which the Eucalyptus nitens must be mentioned.

Thus in the 1990s, the first eucalyptus plantations resistant to cold begin in Terras do Miño, favoured by the progressive abandonment of the countryside and economic incentives (subsidies) representing their exploitation. At the same time, there is a total lack of planning and regulations on the use of this species.

The current situation therefore presents an emerging threat to the progressive change in land use through the use of these alien species which means a loss of diversity and degradation of the natural wealth of the characteristic landscape of the area. Fragmentation of natural vegetation patches is increased and the role they have as a wildlife refuge is lost, while the significant regression that natural forest masses suffer in the rest of Europe is favoured.

The profound socioeconomic changes occurred to date have led to this system of exploitation in which the environments with the highest rates of natural features in the territory correspond to the Hygro-peaty environments located in the highest areas of the northern mountains (Range of Xistral), as well as to hydromorphic environments and swampy forests, associated with the main channels, progress through floodplains.

However, the persistence of these cultural landscapes, like the spaces with a higher natural quality, is threatened today by depopulation, the profound transformation of the exploitation systems and the current agrarian crisis, in spite of some recent initiatives for its preservation, such as the inclusion of more natural environments in the Galician project Natura Network 2000, as well as agri-environmental measures for the preservation of the landscape through extensive grazing and protection and restoration of native breeds (endangered indigenous cattle breeds, such as the Galician blond, and Galician Mountain Horse).