Why cork is good for wildlife
The decrease of natural cork use in wine bottles presents a threat to the cork oak forests of southern Europe and the people and wildlife which depend on this ancient habitat and sustainable industry.
The demand for cork
A fall in the demand for cork as a result of the recent and ongoing switch to plastic stoppers and screwcaps in wine bottles would lead to many cork estates being converted to other land uses, such as intensive farming or timber plantations.
If current trends continue, the wildlife-rich montados and dehesas could disappear within 20-30 years.
The RSPB is pleased to be working with APCOR (the Portuguese cork producers’ association) to promote the benefits of cork. Artist Robert Bradford has created a sculpture of a Spanish imperial eagle out of the 330,000 wine corks collected by RSPB members and supporters during 2001. The sculpture was launched at the Eden Project in September 2002. It is now permanently exhibited at the Pride of the Valley sculpture park in Churt, Surrey.
What's so brilliant about cork?
Discover why what your wine is sealed with can have a significant impact on Europe's biodiversity.
Dehesas (Spain) and montados (Portugal) are mixed farming systems, combining oak woodlands with livestock grazing and cereal cultivation, often interspersed by areas of scrub - heather, gorse, brooms, lavender, rock rose, strawberry trees etc.
Unlike other agro-forestry systems, it developed around the existing, primeval woodlands. Cork is the most economically valuable product. Spain and Portugal have more than half of the world's cork oak woodlands, and produce around three quarters of the world’s cork. Natural wine corks represent about 90 per cent of the economic value of the cork market.
The outer bark of a cork oak tree can be stripped every 9-14 years without harming the tree. Since the harvesting involves no logging, a diverse, ancient woodland ecosystem based on native flora has developed.
The oak trees and associated shrubs bind the soil, prevent erosion, and maintain the water table by protecting the soil from evaporation. The wildlife these forests support is unique. It includes the endangered Iberian lynx, the Spanish imperial eagle (with a world population of around 130 breeding pairs) and the Bonelli's eagle.
What is at stake?
Removal of the native oak forests would destroy a habitat unique in the world. Its destruction would be comparable to turning Yellowstone National Park into a wheatfield.
Species such as the Spanish imperial eagle and the Iberian lynx would probably become extinct. Soil erosion, water evaporation and carbon dioxide emissions would increase.
Montados and dehesas and their important wildlife are also under pressure from powerful agribusinesses, building and real estate interests for tourism and building of new dams, irrigation networks and highways. Falling cork prices would make it more difficult to resist these threats.
In Spain and Portugal the cork industry provides around 80,000 jobs - many local communities are virtually dependent on cork. As the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) puts it: 'If the market demand for cork stoppers were to decrease significantly, the entire system could collapse'.
Why your wine matters
The UK imports more wine than any other country. Supermarkets and leading off-licences control 85 per cent of the country's take-home wine market. Many of these actively promote artificial closures and, contrary to customer preferences, demand these of their suppliers, exerting a major influence on the global wine market.
Since many New World countries export up to 70 per cent of their wine into the UK, pressure by the UK distributors to use artificial closures can cause a switch away from cork very rapidly. If UK wine sellers promoted real cork, it would contribute significantly to the future of the woodlands and ecosystems which produce these corks.
Around 13 billion wine corks are made each year. Artificial closures currently make up around 8 per cent of the world wine closures market. In the UK, the percentage is far greater than this - in some shops up to 50 per cent. The UK's biggest wine retailer is now demanding screw-caps from its suppliers and is aiming to have all wines closed by a screwcap by the end of 2008.
The increasing market share of artificial closures will force down cork prices. Doubling of the current usage of artificial closures is enough to cause a 'crash' in the cork market, which is projected to occur within 10 years.
This would make cork farming less economical than other activities, such as eucalyptus logging, and would lead to conversion of the cork estates to other land uses.
How you can help
The decline of traditional agriculture in the cork growing areas has serious implications for local communities and wildlife.
Most UK wine drinkers prefer real cork to artificial closures. The RSPB is calling on the wine industry to give consumers a choice about what they buy by labelling wine bottles to indicate whether they are stoppered with natural cork or something artificial.
We are calling on consumers to buy wines with real cork stoppers, thereby demonstrating their support for cork, the special places it comes from and the communities that produce it.
- If you buy a bottle of wine and find an artificial closure in it, complain to the shop where you bought it from. This will help retailers better understand customer preferences.
- Wine producers often hear only what the supermarkets tell them. If you write directly to the producer expressing your views, it helps them understand customer preferences. Producers' and importers' addresses are usually found on wine labels.
- You can write to retailers asking that they label their wines with the type of closure used, and to ask their other suppliers to follow suit.
- Waitrose now identifies wines with 'plastic closure' on the shelf-edge labels (but not on their mail-order service) across the full range they sell, while Marks & Spencer and Somerfield are in the process of including a statement about the type of closure used on the labels of their own-brand wines only.
- Tesco is indicating the type of closure used in many of the wines they sell on-line, but not in their stores.