Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 1103–1115 | Cite as

Woody plant encroachment following grazing abandonment in the subalpine belt: a case study in northern Spain

  • Yasmina Sanjuán
  • José Arnáez
  • Santiago Beguería
  • Noemí Lana-Renault
  • Teodoro Lasanta
  • Amelia Gómez-Villar
  • Javier Álvarez-Martínez
  • Paz Coba-Pérez
  • José M. García-Ruiz
Original Article


The montane and subalpine belts in European mountains were affected by intense land use/land cover changes during the twentieth century. In the case of the subalpine belt, most European mountains were affected by complex deforestation processes from Neolithic times, leading to the expansion of summer grasslands to support grazing by transhumant sheep and goats flocks. This resulted in an altitudinal reduction of the tree line and the occurrence of severe soil erosion and shallow landsliding. The intense livestock pressure over centuries explains why the landscape remained without major change until the middle of the twentieth century. Since then, depopulation, land abandonment, and the disappearance of the transhumant system have resulted in a marked decline in livestock numbers and subsequent encroachment of shrubs and trees in the subalpine belt. The Urbión Mountains (Iberian Range, northern Spain) provides one of the clearest examples in the Iberian Peninsula, where there was intense deforestation since the Neolithic period to enlarge the area of subalpine summer grasslands. The recent reversal of this situation in the last decades led to (i) a marked trend to dense forest, which resulted in an average 200 m altitudinal advance, and (ii) the spatial contraction of shrublands, which have been replaced by dense forest in the highest areas. Changes will continue in the future, possibly enhanced by global warming.


Woody encroachment Subalpine belt Deforestation Land use/land cover changes Land abandonment 



Support for this research was provided by the projects ESPAS (CGL2015-65569-R) and INDICA (CGL2011-27753-C02-01 and -02), funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yasmina Sanjuán
    • 1
  • José Arnáez
    • 2
  • Santiago Beguería
    • 3
  • Noemí Lana-Renault
    • 2
  • Teodoro Lasanta
    • 1
  • Amelia Gómez-Villar
    • 4
  • Javier Álvarez-Martínez
    • 5
  • Paz Coba-Pérez
    • 6
  • José M. García-Ruiz
    • 1
  1. 1.Instituto Pirenaico de EcologíaConsejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (IPE-CSIC)ZaragozaSpain
  2. 2.Área de Geografía Física, Departamento de Ciencias HumanasUniversidad de La RiojaLogroñoSpain
  3. 3.Estación Experimental de Aula DeiConsejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (EEAD-CSIC)ZaragozaSpain
  4. 4.Departamento de Geografía y Geología, Facultad de Filosofía y LetrasUniversidad de LeónLeónSpain
  5. 5.Departamento de Ingeniería Agrícola y ForestalUniversidad de ValladolidValladolidSpain
  6. 6.Centro de Investigaciones en Geografía Ambiental, CIGAUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoMexico CityMexico

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