The Agras field system as a cultural landscape in Galicia (Spain)



  • Universidad de Vigo and Universidad de Santiago de Compostela


  • 18/04/2011

  • REGION :

  • Southern Europe


  • Spain


  • The aim of this research is the analysis of the dynamics of traditional agrarian landscapes with agras field system in Galicia, so as to provide new insights into their historical-cultural value and on their spatio-temporal distribution. On the one hand, the agras field system was very dynamic as in the past agras occupied larger areas in the region. On the other hand, we observed that despite agricultural evolution, agras showed strong inertia, as they have preserved their functionality for several centuries until the second half of the twentieth century. From this period onwards, the destructuring and loss of functionality of agras has been observed. Decline was favoured by demographic retreat and changes in the agricultural productive system. Nevertheless, we have observed a significant persistence of the agras structure, of its traditional knowledge and toponymy.


  • field systems, agras, cultural landscapes, spatio-temporal evolution, dynamics


  • Gonzalo Méndez Martínez (, Ph.D. in Geography, belongs to the Department of Marine Geosciences and Land Use Planning and is a full-time professor of Universidad de Vigo. He focuses his research activities on the environmental-territorial relationship, as well as on landscape and cartography (with a special focus on historical cartography), mainly on the Galician territory. He is the leader researcher of the interdisciplinary research group on Strategic Environmental Assessment.

    Ramón Alberto Díaz Varela (, European Ph.D. in Forestry Engineering, belongs to the Botanical Department of Universidad de Santiago de Compostela. His research activity is centered on landscape ecology, high nature value farmland (HNVF) for biodiversity, cultural landscape with biodiversity values and, in particular, in the use of GIS and remote sensing techniques for the characterization, cartography and monitoring of habitats.


The main objective of this research is the analysis of the dynamics of traditional agrarian landscape of agras in the Galician community in order to provide data regarding its historic-cultural value, spatio-temporal distribution, as well as its recent evolution dynamics, which allows us to reflect on its persistence and its conservation perspectives.

Figure 1. Study area

Methodology and sources

Firstly, we have carried out a review of the state of the art, presenting the agras field system in the context of the cultural landscapes of Galicia (Northwest of Spain, Figure 1), providing data of its main characteristics and its similarity with other agrarian field systems of Atlantic Spain. Following, with the support of historical cartography (Méndez Martínez, 1994) and a recent work (Calvo Iglesias et al., 2012), in which the utility of the micro-toponymy is shown as an indicator of the presence of agras, we have analyzed the recent dynamics of the agras, specifically the permanence or the loss of the agricultural nature of the agras, through sampling of toponyms relative to these within their distribution area using the cartography of the present rural cadastre database.  For this, we have randomly digitized a total of 1,490 sampling points corresponding to the toponyms of agras and analyzing the type of recent land cover according to usage data of SITGA (2003), in order to determine an estimate of the possible directions of land use change in the agras. On the other hand, we have used the records from the rural cadastre at the end of the 1950s (twentieth century) as a source to locate agra toponym records, their use and determine their morphology and area. The overlay of this information in a geographic information system with the photo interpretation of the orthophotographs of the National Plan for Aerial Orthophotography (PNOA) of 2003 has allowed us to study their recent evolution.

Cultural landscape of Galicia

The cultural landscape of Galicia presents a broad diversity manifested on a local scale, the result of the adaptation of the agrarian system to different environmental contexts and social, economic and historic-cultural imperatives, to which are added the richness and heterogeneity of ethnographic elements, such as fences, raised granaries and other similar constructions. Within the framework of this diversity there have been certain common features in the use of space, a reflection of the most widespread land use system in the region: multiple cropping (García Fernández, 1975; Bouhier, 1979; Mata Olmo, 1997). This traditional land use system, based on an integral utilization of the resources of the territory, assumed an organization which made a distinction between the areas dedicated to land with permanent crops or Ager, the forests or Silva and the Saltus or “monte” in which scrubland predominated (García Fernández, 1975).

The Ager was organized in different areas according to the property, type of crop and utilization management, basically distinguishing the cultivated land (with different characteristics according to the field system), from the cortiñas or enclosed plots subject to intensive cultivation, from the orchards known as eixidos or circundados, basically used for the supply of vegetable and fruit crops, as well as the non-irrigated and irrigated meadows. Forests were mostly used for firewood and wood, although also as a source for fodder, litter and charcoal. In the case of soutos, the utilization of chestnuts had a high importance in most of Galicia and, in particular, in the mountainous areas, in the food supply for human consumption as well as a complement in animal feeding (Díaz Varela et al., 2009).  The multiple use of the scrubland should also be pointed out, of vital importance for the feasibility of the traditional system, as a source for litter or estrume for producing dung, firewood and charcoal, as well as for shifting cultivation through slash-and-burning practices or estivadas, and pasture for grazing animals (García Fernández, 1975; Bouhier, 1979; Balboa, 1990).

Bouhier (1979) distinguished five basic types of agrarian field systems still existing in Galicia in the 1950-60 period (Figure 2): bocage or landscape of enclosed fields surrounded by the Montañas Septentrionales, the dominating crop on terraces and banks in the coastal sectors, the vineyards on terraces in the gorges of the Miño and Sil rivers, the openfields or crops in open fields of the southeastern mountains and agras field systems which mainly extend through the valleys and flatlands of the interior of Galicia.  In between, he identified several transition areas in the contact areas of the agras and the remaining agrarian field systems, with mixed characteristics.

Spatial configuration, functionality and management of the agras

The name agra or agro refers to a block or collection of cultivated plots of land with a perimeter fence and which was divided into parcels within or open leiras. In certain areas of Galicia, they also have other local names such as “veiga”, “praza”, “vilar”, “chousa” and “barbeito”.

Figure 2.          Extent of field systems identified by Bouhier

In respect to the spatial configuration, these were characterized by the presence of a temporary or permanent outside perimeter fence, and the existence of one or several access roads to serve the parcels. In general, agras were closed after planting and opened to harvest the main crop on a fixed date and the subsequent utilization of the stubble. As a consequence, the entry of livestock was blocked while the land was cultivated and thus prevented any damage to the crops.  The interior of the agra was accessed by a wooden or wrought iron gate and the right of way to the parcels usually through a road which was closed as the parcels were sown following an established order.  In the interior of the agras, the parcels were narrow, elongated and open, with only boundary stones known as “marcos” demarking the property. The closing of the agras might be temporary, through the accumulation of lumps of earth, shrubs or a tall fence of interwoven thin flexible branches, or, permanently, with stone or earthen walls known as valados with a fence of trees.

Figure 3 shows a fragment of the map produced in 1794 for the purpose of litigation by the Agra or Insua de Balay located in the parish of Santa María de Loureda (presently in the municipality of Arteixo, A Coruña), disputed by the Marquis of Camarasa and Parga and Mr. Pedro Ramón Pardo Osorio, in order to resolve whether or not it was included in the forum awarded to Juan Cancelo and his wife.  The legend of this map indicates that the Agra de Balay or Insua of the same name was enclosed within, and that within the agra there had been a little-used pathway which crossed it.  The legend also shows the ownership of the leiras or parcels within the agra and indicates that some of these were used as fields instead of cultivated land. The cartographic representation shows the agra as a collection of parcels open on the inside and surrounded by an exterior shrub enclosure, a perimeter trail and a path which crossed the agra. It also distinguishes between cultivated parcels and the meadows or fields.  In general, the agra presents a geometry with rounded edges while the interior parcels are generally elongated rectangles.

Figure 3.   Details of Agra de Balay in the “Map of areas of the parish of Santa María de Loureda, A Coruña” (Archive of Royal Chancery of Valladolid, PyD, 223)

Agras initially had a double function, on the one part, its main use consisted in providing cereal crops, although there was also livestock utilization of stubble, which permitted the recovery of fertility with the resting of the crop and thanks to livestock contributions of faeces. This duality was reflected in the crop systems, with initally two-year rotations and subsequently three years in agras with better land characteristics or better fertilized; and combinations of a more extensive nature with fields remaining fallow for two years which the farmer reserved for the poorer or less fertilized agras.  With the progressive incorporation of new crops to the rotations, in particular maize and potatoes, the crop alternatives were made more complex and the continuity of associated regulations became more difficult.  Maize was introduced very quickly throughout the eighteenth century in the coastal regions, with its penetration in the interior being much slower.  This fact resulted in the neat differentiation of two agrarian utilization models: one more intensive and more productive on the Atlantic front and the other of an extensive nature and low yield on the interior flatlands (Bouhier, 1979; Villares, 1984).

Due to this organization of the crop in the agra and the rate of rotations, for practical purposes, the inhabitants tended to have their properties or own land in several agras in order to obtain fruit every year. This is corroborated by the verbal sources consulted and other prior research (Cardesín, 1992; Calvo, 2005).

In regard to its management, although the parcels of the agras belonged to different owners, the regulations were determined by certain standards of a collective nature.  In this manner, the use of the agras was subject to the followup of certain standards established by the rural community and which regulated the type of crop in the agra, the cultural work schedule (planting, harvesting), the maintenance of crop rotation within the agra and livestock access to this for stubble utilization. An illustrative example of these regulations is constituted by the Mondoñedo ordinances of 1503, in which the division and closing of the space to be cultivated in the new agras was established, with the exception of vineyards and orchards, which could be closed on an individual basis. These ordinances decided that the closures would not be modified and that each owner would work on its maintenance on a proportional basis to the amount of property in the agra, as well as prohibiting livestock access while they were cultivated (Saavedra, 1985). These customary standards common to other regions of Spain, of oral transmission (most frequently in Galicia) or obtained in medieval charters, municipal ordinances and royal provisions, tend to receive the name of the derrota de mieses an expression which alludes to the permission for livestock access to the cropland once the fruit had been picked so as to graze on the stubble fields. Derrota de mieses responded to the need to complement and compatibilize agricultural use with livestock.  In this manner, the grazing practice thus allowed to recover the fertility of the worked land through the fallowing and fertilizing produced by the animal feces. On the other hand, the common pastureland without any demarcation of boundaries between different estates facilitated this activity and permitted to economize the salary of shepherds (Sánchez Salazar, 2002).

On the similarity of agras to the erías and mieses of Asturias and Cantabria

Bouhier found significant similarities between the agras and the structures historically present in the Atlantic area generally known as ería en Asturias, and mies or mier in Cantabria. In Cantabria, they also had the name of ería in the areas bordering the Asturian community, and in Valle del Liébana the name cuérano was used (Fernández Benítez et al., 1994). Sánchez Gómez (1987) describes this as cultivated land formed of numerous individually worked parcels, but enclosed by a single fence common to all, which demarked and separated the space for agriculture and livestock.  This fence symbolized the common responsibility to protect the fruit and collective nature of livestock utilization of this space once the crop had been harvested.  This description, as well as those described in other works consulted (García Fernández, 1988; Fernández Conde, 1993; Fernández Benítez et al., 2002) corroborates the close similarity between agras and erías determined by their characteristic elements: the existence of a common external enclosure, the internal arrangement in open plots and the collective regulations which controlled these.

Thus, entry to the erías was gained by a gate (portiella in Asturias and portilla in Cantabria) for common use and there was also at least one access path which served the different parcels (Fernández Conde, 1993). As in the case of the agras, the erías and mieses were enclosed by walls (murias en Asturias) or by different types of shrubs or tall wattle fences along the entire perimeter to prevent the entry of livestock while the land was under cultivation. Inside, the fields were kept opened, the property was demarcated with boundary stone markers known as finxos in Asturias (Fernández Benítez et al., 2002). The construction and maintenance of the erías and mieses enclosure was also carried out on collectively, such that all inhabitants had to contribute in proportion to the area of land they held within this (García Fernández, 1988).

Figure 4. Detail of the ería of Cabueres, showing the boundaries with the letter C (Archive of the Royal Chancery of Valladolid, PyD 540)

An example of the presence of toponyms related to the erías and their graphic representation is that of the “Map of the Anes district”, prepared in 1782 as result of a dispute between José Omaña y Oviedo and José García and consorts, regarding the occupancy of a plot of land.  This map indicates, among others, the toponyms Hería de la Peña, Hería del Medio or del Charcón and la Hería de Cabueres, together with the area of Barganiza in the municipality of Siero in Asturias, as well as schematically representing the boundaries of the Ería de Cabueres and its access paths (Figure 4).

Initially, the use of the erías and mieses, as in the case of the agras, was to alternate the cereal crop with fallowing. The diffusion of the maize crop, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resulted in a reorganization of these and a stricter regulation to make the intensification of crop rotation compatible with livestock.  In effect, maize was introduced in fallow land, considerably reducing the grazing period and, in addition, favored the simultaneous incorporation of leguminous crops (kidney beans). The reorganization involved the joint organization of erías and mieses to materialize the separation of parcels with wheat or rye from the parcels intended for maize (Sánchez Gómez, 1987; García Fernández, 1988). Throughout the nineteenth century, crop rotation reached its maximum complexity with the incorporation of the potato in alternation with the winter cereals and the gradual introduction of forage crops following the maize harvest (García Fernández, 1988). The decline and loss of function of these agrarian structures occurred between the last third of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, due to changes produced in the agrarian system.  The degree of intensification reached made the continuity of grazing unfeasible, and thus eliminated an elementary function of the erías and mieses. This loss of function was also propitiated by the restrictions imposed on this customary use by the Royal Order of 1853 abolishing the grazing system, as well as the individualization of agrarian space through fences, and productive reorientation toward stock raising (García Fernández, 1988).

Recent evolution of agras landscape

The dynamic nature intrinsic to the landscape notion, involves its evolution and transformation over time, as a result of the interaction between environmental and anthropic factors (Holl and Nilsson, 1999). Until relatively recent times, this evolution and transformation was, in general, slow and progressive, of local impact, the result of a process of adaptation to environmental conditions, for which these landscapes have been perceived as relatively stable. From the beginning of industrialization, the population growth and the growth of urban areas beginning in the eighteenth century and, specifically, from the technological revolution throughout the twentieth century, the speed and magnitude of the changes increased considerably in many places of Europe (Antrop, 2005).

In the case of the Galician landscape, important transformations are being produced from the second half of the twentieth century, linked to deep socioeconomic changes.  In the last decade, we have observed an aging and depopulation of the rural environment, particularly in the interior of Galicia, and at the same time a significant increase of urban pressure on the coast.  The evolution of the population in Galicia from 1960 to 2008 shows how the provinces of Lugo and Ourense totaled a population of 927,807 inhabitants in 1960 (INE, 2009, IGE, 2009), as a result of which approximately 25% of its assets have been lost, while the provinces of A Coruña and Pontevedra with total populations in 1960 of 989,551 and 679,445 inhabitants having increased their assets by 15% and 40%, respectively (INE, 2009, IGE, 2009). On the other hand, a deep transformation of the agrarian sector is being produced, which has gone from a traditional system characterized by multiple subsistence cropping, non- remunerative small land holding and certain singular agrarian structures, to a market system, to a reorientation of agricultural activity marked by the intensification and specialization toward livestock. Under the framework of this transformation of the sector, a significant drop in the number of operations has been produced (78.77 percent during the 1962-2005 period), of the agrarian population (79.3 percent in the 1955-2000 period), an increase in the average size of operations as well as a continued decline of the cultivated area (65.13 percent between 1962 and 2005). The existence of significant changes in land use should also be pointed out, given that the decline of cultivated land has resulted in an increase of area of meadows, rangeland and of afforested areas (Fernández Martínez, 2002; Loureiro and Barrio, 2009). Livestock specialization with the consequential impoverishment of crop alternatives, as well as the modernization of operation systems and of infrastructure through parcel concentration has also resulted in a homogenization and simplification of the landscape.

Bouhier (1979) saw the unequal and gradual abandonment of the rules regarding closing and crop rotation of agras and, consequently, the loss of function of these. Thus, in certain locations such as the lower valleys of Tambre and lower Ulla, it is indicated that from 1930 the infractions of the customary standards had begun, although in other areas of Galicia this rupture did not become general until the middle or after the 50s.

In other Galician municipalities, as occurred in Touro and Boqueixón, these standards continued in effect until the end of the 1960s. In a recent study in the north of Galicia, loss of function of the agras occurred between 1960 and 1970, although in a majority of the cases analyzed, the continuity of the associated toponymy, the agricultural nature, of the traditional skills, as well as of the spatial structure and morphology characteristic was observed, with the exception of the areas subject to land consolidation or afforestation (Calvo et al., 2009).

In the present study, toponyms have been used to evaluate the persistence of agrarian field systems.  The random consultation of present cadastral data of the entire region has allowed us to corroborate the continuity and high frequency of the toponyms associated with the agras. In addition, these frequently maintain an agricultural nature, as can be seen from the results (Figure 5). Precisely, in 84 percent of the cases, the toponyms related to agras continue associated with land of agricultural crops, in spite of having lost the original function of these and though its morphology has been blurred.  Thus, in the majority of cases analyzed, the old rotations with cereal have been replaced with permanent uses as meadows and forage crops. The morphology has in certain cases also been altered due to the individualization of the use of agrarian space through enclosure in certain cases and the simplification of the morphology of the parcels during land consolidation.  In 3% of cases, the agras parcels have been abandoned and have brushwood, while in the rest of the cases they have been replaced by afforestation (11%) or urban land use (2%).  This information offers significant data regarding the possible directions of change experienced in agras: loss of cerealistic nature due to the production reorientation toward livestock production, abandonment of agrarian land, structural changes deriving from parceling concentration and the development of infrastructures and disappearance of structures in the afforestation and urban development processes.  In a prior study (Calvo Iglesias et al., 2006), in the north of Galicia, similar directions of change have been identified and quantified, with the occurrence of several of these directions being frequently observed in the same area.

Figure 5.Directions of change in agras according to sampling


In this study we have analyzed the agras as agrarian structures and their reflection in the cultural landscape of the traditional agrarian society in Galicia.  Agras maintain a close similarity with old erías and mieses structures in Asturias and Cantabria, as is reflected by the descriptions regarding their morphology and function, as well as the examples found in the historic cartographic documentation.

The analysis of their historic evolution has allowed us to observe their dynamism, inasmuch as in the past these structures occupied more extensive areas in the region and, their inertia on the other, given that in spite of the evolution of the agrarian society, they have remained functional over several centuries, up to the second half of the twentieth century. The study of their recent evolution reflects the destructing and loss of function of the agras, favored by the demographic regression of the rural areas and as a result of the changes in the production system which has resulted in a reorientation and specialization toward milk production.  Thus, the rural depopulation, abandonment of agricultural activity and reforestation of agrarian land, parceling concentration and urban development are factors which significantly contribute to erasing what is left of the traditional agrarian landscape.  In spite of this, we have established a significant persistence of the agricultural nature in the areas where these structures are located within the Galician territory.

The decline of the agras has taken place in a more recent period in respect to the erías and mieses, frequently allowing to conserve the associated local knowledge, its toponymy and even, in numerous cases, its morphology and/or its structural elements, which is relevant for the Galician landscape study and may also be of interest for further knowledge of the evolution of erías and mieses. However, it is necessary to underline the unequal evolution of the agras landscape which, as we have illustrated previously, in certain cases persisted until very recently, while in others it has been completely transformed or is undergoing transformation.  The loss of function and the present lack of recognition regarding its value constitute serious threats to the conservation of its structure and, in particular, of the associated local awareness and significance of its toponymy, whose transmission to new generations is not guaranteed.

In spite of these threats, its persistence in Galician memory and territory, as well as the recent approval of the Galician landscape law constitute an opportunity to identify, conserve and value the traditional agrarian landscape elements which have transcended to the present, as testimony of the history of rural societies, an expression of the continued interaction of human beings and the environment over time, and ultimately as part of our cultural heritage, following the inspirational principles of the World Cultural Heritage Convention and of the European Landscape Convention.


Balboa, X. (1990): O monte en Galicia. Vigo, Edicións Xerais de Galicia.

Bouhier, A. (1979): La Galice, essai geographique d’un vieux complexe agraire, Vendee (France), Université de Poitiers.

Calvo Iglesias, M. S. (2005): Characterisation and dynamics of cultural landscapes with GIS and remote sensing for planning and management. Application in a northern area of the province of Lugo (NW Spain). Tesis doctoral, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela.

–        Díaz Varela, R. A., Méndez Martínez, G. and Fra Paleo, U. (2012): “Using place names for mapping the distribution of vanishing historical landscape features: the agras field system in NW Spain”, Landscape Research. DOI:10.1080/01426397.2011.604716

–        Fra-Paleo, U., Crecente-Maseda, R. and Diaz-Varela, R. A. (2006): “Directions of Change in Land Cover and Landscape Patterns from 1957 to 2000 in Agricultural Landscapes in NW Spain”, Environmental Management, 38, pp. 921-933.

–        Fra Paleo, U. and Díaz Varela, R. A. (2009): “Changes in farming system and population as drivers of land cover and landscape dynamics: The case of enclosed and semi-openfield systems in Northern Galicia (Spain)”, Landscape and Urban Planning, 90, pp. 168-177.

Díaz Varela, R. A., Calvo Iglesias, M. S., Díaz Varela, E. R., Ramil Rego, R. and Crecente Maseda, R. (2009): “Castanea sativa forest: a threatened cultural landscape in Galicia NW Spain”, en K. Krzywinski, M. O’Connell and H. Küster (eds.), Cultural landscapes of Europe, fields of Demeter haunts of Pan, Bremen, Aschenbeck Media, 94-95.

Fernández Benítez, V., Bastante, F., Espinosa, C., Mañanes, B. and Merino, J. (1994): La sociedad rural tradicional. Santander, Universidad de Cantabria.

Fernández Benítez, V., Fernández García, J. A., Fernández García, X., García Martínez, A., López Álvarez, J., Martínez Lorenzo, L., Muñoz, J. A., Prieto, M. A., Rodríguez Rodríguez, R., Suárez, J., Suárez, M. and Villa, J. (2002): Trabajar para comer. Producción y alimentación en la Asturies tradicional. Documentación general. Gijón, Fundación Municipal de Cultura, Educación y Universidad Popular.Fernández Conde, F. J. (1993): El señorío del cabildo ovetense. Estructuras agrarias de Asturias en el tardo Medievo. Oviedo, Universidad de Oviedo.

Fernández Martínez, G. (2002): “Economía rural y agraria en Galicia: Rasgos y problemas más relevantes”, in Libro blanco de la agricultura y el desarrollo rural, Madrid, Ministerio de Agricultura, Pesca y Alimentación <>

García Fernández, J. (1975): Organización del espacio y economía rural en la España Atlántica. Madrid, Siglo XXI.

–        (1988): Sociedad y organización tradicional del espacio en Asturias. Gijón, Silverio Cañada D.L.

Holl, A. and Nilsson, K. (1999): “Cultural landscape as subject to national research programmes in Denmark”, Landscape and Urban Planning, 46, pp. 15-27.

IGE (2009): Datos estatísticos básicos de Galicia 2009. Santiago de Compostela, Instituto Galego de Estatística.

INE (2009): “INEbase. Población (1960) por provincias, edad y sexo”.  Instituto Nacional de Estadística,

Loureiro, M. L. and Barrio, M. (2009): Valoración medioambiental, cultural y paisajística de los espacios rurales gallegos: una perspectiva económica. Santiago de Compostela, Fundación Caixa Galicia.

Mata, R. (1997): “Paisajes y sistemas agrarios españoles”, in C. Gómez Benito and J. J. González (eds.), Agricultura y sociedad en la España contemporánea, Madrid, Ministerio de Agricultura, Pesca y Alimentacion y Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, pp. 109-177.

Méndez Martínez, G. (1994): Cartografía antigua de Galicia. Pontevedra, Diputación Provincial de Pontevedra.

Rodríguez Gutiérrez, F. (1989): La organización agraria de la montaña central asturiana. Oviedo, Principado de Asturias.

Saavedra, P. (1985): Economía, política y sociedad en Galicia: La provincia de Mondoñedo, 1480-1830. Santiago de Compostela, Xunta de Galicia.

Sánchez Gómez, M. A. (1987): Historia general de Cantabria: los siglos XVIII y XIX. Santander, Tantín.

Sánchez Salazar, F. (2002): “Derrota de mieses y cercados y acotamientos de tierras: un aspecto del pensamiento agrario en la España del siglo XVIII”, Revista Española de Estudios Agrosociales y Pesqueros, 195, pp. 81-120.

SITGA [Sistema de Información Territorial de Galicia] (2003): Mapa de coberturas y usos del suelo de Galicia. E:1/25000. Santiago de Compostela, Xunta de Galicia.

Villares, R. (1984): Galicia. A historia. Vigo, Galaxia.