Cork oak forest restoration in the Maamora cork oak forest in Morocco (June to December 2019)

ReStory narrator: Ken Coetzee; Conservation Management Services

While working on a management plan for a hunting farm (situated between the Mediterranean Sea in the North and the Atlas mountains in the South) in Morocco, North Africa, we came across a valiant effort to restore the Maamora cork oak forest. This forest has been subjected to overharvesting and overgrazing for many decades.

The forest has been unsustainably harvested for its cork bark, wood and acorns; the continuous harvesting has had a negative impact on the forest, making the trees vulnerable to insect and fungal damage. In addition to the harvesting, the forest ground cover has also become degraded through historical cultivation and overgrazing with domestic livestock as well as more recent overgrazing with introduced wildlife and indigenous rabbits. The result has been reduced forest tree density due to a lack of recruitment, and its complete removal or loss in some parts. Significant natural tree recruitment has not taken place and the ground cover was reduced to annual pioneer plants and invasive weeds in some areas, a complete loss of shrub diversity in others, as well as a widespread reduction in the cover and diversity of grasses.

Damaged cork oak forest – the loss of trees is due to historical overharvesting of the cork bark and the consequent tree parasite problems
Damage to mature cork oak trees caused by boring insects and fungi

In the past, game numbers were permitted to increase well beyond the capacity of the area available. In addition, the extensive broadcasting of seed to encourage game bird production (for hunting) had the unexpected effect of dramatically increasing indigenous European rabbit numbers. This in turn had a huge effect on all ground cover and successful forest tree germination.

The forest needs to be rehabilitated to support an ecologically functional tree cover as well as a diverse cover of understory shrubs, forbs and grasses, and an endemic woodpecker, an endemic toad and an endemic tortoise species. The rehabilitation action that was put into place will result in a healthy forest ecosystem and it will enable the forest to sustainably support a variety of browsing and grazing wildlife. This will certainly improve the sustained potential of the area for the hunting of game birds, wild boars and antelopes, which is the primary objective of the landowner.

On this specific farm, game numbers were significantly reduced between 2015 and 2019 and the bird feeding by broadcasting seed was stopped. This resulted in the normalisation of the rabbit population. An extensive part of the farm has also been put aside for forest restoration; both grazing and browsing animal numbers in this area are kept very low.

Furthermore, a large on-site nursery provides saplings for forest planting which is done according to a well planned re-vegetation plan by a specially appointed forest manager. The plantings include not only trees but also shrubs and ground covers. We have further recommended the alternative use of rabbit-proofed (fenced) restoration areas within which the trees can be planted without plastic tube protectors. The ground should also be completely covered with organic mulch which will help to reduce the cost and effort of watering after planting, and eventually help to improve the quality of the topsoil in the planted areas.

An on-site nursery in which to grow seedlings of the primary cork oak forest trees
Protected plantings of cork oaks and a number of ground cover shrubs – note the relatively bare ground, the only cover being annual herbs and weeds

The forest restoration program is carefully monitored by an in-house ecologist in close association with the forest manager who adapt the planting programs where and when required. However, any future tree and shrub planting program will be severely impacted by the excessive number of game and rabbit because the animals will feed on both the acorns that fall to the ground as well as the established tree saplings and protective ground cover. The judicious management of animal numbers is thus critical for the success of the cork oak forest rehabilitation program.

A surviving stand of planted cork oak trees
Healthy cork oak forest with a good shrub, dwarf shrub, dwarf palm and grass cover

Highly endangered North African antelopes like the dama gazelle and addax antelope are bred for distribution and hunting

Our management plan provides for time-targeted forest restoration actions, outlines the methodology, provides for an annual review of progress and ensures that forest restoration will continue to be included in each annual APO and budget for the farm.