How to ensure that each olive tree gets its little owl back

Only in Andalusia, there are one and a half million hectares dedicated to olive cultivation. It is one of the most distinctive landscapes of the Mediterranean and Spain, a type of cultivation that historically offered economic returns while maintaining a great wealth of wildlife. The well-known proverb “each little owl to its olive tree” indicates the popular understanding of a rural reality: the traditional olive grove was a rich agroforestry system where all kinds of species, including nocturnal birds of prey like the little owl, found their habitat.

Currently, in many places, this is not the case. The intensification of cultivation, spurred on decades ago by European agricultural policies, has depleted the rich heritage of the olive grove that we had inherited after centuries of sustainable management.

That’s what the following video explains, produced by journalist Caty Arévalo for EfeVerde and echoing one of the latest initiatives of SEO/BirdLife. It is the Olivares Vivos project, which aims to restore the natural wealth of the olive grove and at the same time achieve greater profitability for the cultivation, promoting a quality seal for olive products generated with sustainability criteria and respect for nature. It is about restoring profitability to the olive grove and the pride of being an olive grower to those who live off this cultivation.

“The greatest biodiversity crisis in traditional olive groves was related to Spain’s entry into the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the late 1980s and was mainly caused by the intensification of cultivation and the systematic elimination of natural vegetation that coexisted with the olive trees in hedges, slopes, ditches, streams, or any unproductive surface of the olive grove,” explains José Eugenio Gutiérrez, territorial delegate of SEO/BirdLife in Andalusia.

These areas, which acted in cultivation as ecological compensation areas, made possible the coexistence of a productive olive grove with appreciable biodiversity. The destruction of most of these elements, as they were located in unproductive areas, had no agronomic purpose, but rather responded to a kind of “olive fever” unleashed by an agricultural policy that doubled the price of oil from one year to the next. Thus, a new olive-growing culture was formed in which maximum production had to be obtained, without sparing inputs, and where everything that did not produce olives was considered surplus in the olive grove. The field had to be “cleaned up,” it was thought.

This has had its consequences. Only regarding birds, SEO/BirdLife monitoring since the late 90s has revealed a dramatic decline in populations of emblematic species in eastern Andalusia. “Some, such as the greenfinch or the goldfinch, have fallen by up to 70%, and there are nocturnal birds of prey, such as the little owl, whose populations have declined by 40% in the last decade,” reports the Efe agency.

Diversifying the olive grove and recovering biodiversity from the recovery of these elements in the current scenario, where overproduction is now a problem, should not be a complicated task. The impossibility of recovering the price of oil and the lack of profitability of merely productive formulas encourage the sector to seek differentiating formulas that seek profitability through a brand linked to product quality and respect for the environment.



La Sociedad Española de Ornitología es la entidad conservacionista decana de España. Desde 1954, sigue teniendo como misión conservar la biodiversidad, con la participación e implicación de la sociedad, siempre con las aves como bandera.

SEO/BirdLife es la representante en España de BirdLife International, una federación que agrupa a las asociaciones dedicadas a la conservación de las aves y sus hábitats en todo el mundo, con representación en más de 100 países y más de 13 millones de socios.

Es el socio coordinador del LIFE Olivares Vivos+.