Cork tree forests cover the surface of almost 5.4 million acres in seven Mediterranean countries including Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France. These trees are synonymous with this region, and they represent one of the best examples of the development of the multi-functional forest. This landscape supports a rich diversity of wildlife, including the Iberian lynx, imperial eagle and Barbary deer, alongside farmlands, to create a unique balance between man and nature. The cork forest serves a valuable ecological function by providing soil conservation, water table recharge, and run-off control, while also buffering against climate change and desertification.
The cork oak landscapes help reduce greenhouse gases because the trees store large amounts of carbon, especially in their early years, which is when they grow the fastest. The Andalusian forests in Spain store more than 150 million tons of carbon dioxide, and cork oak trees are responsible for nearly 11 percent of this total. Cork oak trees store carbon in order to regenerate their bark, and a harvested tree absorbs up to five times more carbon than a non-harvested tree.
Cork has been harvested for centuries and is one of the finest examples of traditional, sustainable land use that offers a viable livelihood for future generations. The care and harvesting of cork is a highly-skilled business in the western Mediterranean, where each generation has tutored the next in a continuous process from the time of the ancient Greeks.
Harvesting of the outer bark of the cork oak tree (not the trunk) occurs every nine to 12 years in the late spring and early summer when the cells are turgid and fragile and tear without being damaged. The tougher cork is used for flooring and insulation, while the supple, even-structured cork is used for wine closures. A tree typically requires 25 years of growth before it produces the quality of cork used for wine closures, but it will provide a harvest for some 200 years.