HNV Farming & Biodiversity

Cereal steppes of Rio Jarama & Henares (Spain)

Cereal steppes of Rio Jarama and Henares

Natura site name: SPA Cereal steppes of Rio Jarama and Henares (Madrid)
Natura Code: ES 3110001

This landscape is typical of large areas of the Spanish interior that are dominated by extensive cereal cropping favouring the maintenance of a highly diverse steppeland bird community, including many species of conservation concern. The characteristics that make this an HNV farming landscape include the mosaic of low-intensity cropping with a large proportion of fallow land, interspersed with semi-natural vegetation.

The SPA was declared in 1992, and was later incorporated into the SAC Cuencas de los ríos Jarama y Henares (Natura 2000 fiche). The SAC covers 36,088 hectares and is dominated by extensive cereal cultivation (75% of the area).

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Cereal pseudo-steppes

Cereal pseudo-steppes cover at least 7 million ha in Spain. The fallow proportion typically constitutes a third of the arable area, rising to as much as 80% on the most marginal soils.

Mosaic of dryland cereal crops

Mosaic of dryland cereal crops

HNV arable land generally consists of a mosaic of dryland cereal crops, fallow land, legume crops and dry grasslands. The mosaics vary in character and can include olives and vines in certain regions. The entire area may be grazed or browsed by livestock at certain times of the year.

3 year rotation

The traditional 3 year rotation is cereals (wheat, barley or oats) - fallow - legumes (vetch). The presence of cereal stubble during summer and autumn is typical. This is grazed by sheep flocks (stubble and fallen grain in summer, spontaneous grass and cereal re-growth in autumn).

Agricultural productivity

Agricultural productivity is low, with average cereal harvests of 2.5 t/ha, compared to 6.0 t/ha EU average.

Arable farm in Cobeña

Mr Juan de Mesa works a 300 ha dryland arable farm in Cobeña (central Spain). He is careful when harvesting to avoid the nests of great bustards and other ground-nesting birds, leaving an un-harvested patch of one metre around the nests. He also leaves a 0.5-metre un-ploughed edge around his fields and avoids spraying these strips. This is beneficial for beetles, butterflies and other insects, as well as for rabbits.
Juan has participated in an agri-environment scheme, although the payments hardly compensate for the loss of income from a compulsory 1-hectare set-aside.

Extensive livestock


Extensive livestock has important functions in this agro-ecosystem. During the fallow period, the soil is improved by incorporated stubbles along with livestock dung from grazing sheep flocks. Grazing also prevent succession to scrub on areas of semi-natural vegetation, thus maintaining habitat suitable for steppeland birds, and disperse arable weed species.

Livestock producers

In the vast inland plains of Castilla and Aragón, livestock producers generally own little land and rely on the grazing of flocks on land rented annually, usually a combination of arable stubbles/fallow on the better land and rough grazing on the poorest land and hills.

Milk and meat sheep systems

In both milk and meat sheep systems, the stocking densities are extremely low (0.15-0.3 LU/ha). Sheep for milk make more use of arable land, whereas meat sheep depend more on rough grazing.

Grubbing up vineyards

Grubbing up vineyards

Main threats to the nature values of the area include poaching and excessive hunting, developments such as power lines, roads and industrial estates, and agricultural intensification. Ground-nesting birds can suffer high mortality during cereal harvests.


With almost treeless scant vegetation and flat or gently undulating topography, Pseudo-steppes resemble the true steppes of Central Asia. The main habitat components are semi-natural pastures, shrub vegetation and extensive cereal crops with fallows.

Habitat heterogeneity

Habitat heterogeneity

Vegetation composition of fallow parcels vary considerably depending on fallow duration. This in turn creates a spatial and temporal habitat heterogeneity, which is positively linked to diversity and abundance of steppeland birds.

Field boundaries of spontaneous vegetation

Field boundaries of spontaneous vegetation

The nature value of the farmland further increases through the presence of landscape features such as field boundaries of spontaneous vegetation and seasonal streams or ponds (e.g. priority habitat 3170).

Endemic oro-Mediterranean heaths with gorse

Important habitats of the SAC listed in Annex 1 of the EU habitat directive are "Endemic oro-Mediterranean heaths with gorse" (CODE 4090) and "Thermo-Mediterranean and pre-desert scrub" (Code 5330).

Ground-nesting bird species

Different pseudo-steppe types are the home to different ground-nesting bird species, many of whom are highly endangered and have their European stronghold on the Iberian peninsula. Most well-known are the great bustards: their spectacular courtship can be seen in cereal pseudo-steppes.

Black-bellied sandgrouse

Black-bellied sandgrouse

Black-bellied sandgrouse (female) are typical for steppes with a significant proportion of extensive grasslands.

Dupont's lark

Dupont's lark

Dupont's lark (Chersophilus duponti) is a characteristic inhabitant of shrub steppes in parts of Spain and northern Africa. his shy species is classified as "near threatened" by IUCN.

Montagu's Harrier

Montagu's Harrier

Montagu's harrier (top) inhabit cereal pseudo-steppes, together with hen harriers and lesser kestrels (bottom).

European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
Date: 2024/07/21
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