Unsuitable agricultural practices can cause loss in soil quality and erodibility to thus increase or trigger desertification under Mediterranean conditions. A field experiment was performed at the El Teularet‐Sierra de Enguera Experimental Station (eastern Spain) to assess the influence during a 5‐yr period of different agricultural practices on physical and chemical indicators of soil quality (total and water‐soluble carbohydrates, glomalin‐related soil proteins (GRSP), total organic carbon, aggregate stability (AS), vegetation cover and soil erosion). The management practices included residual herbicide use, ploughing, ploughing + oats, addition of oat straw mulch and a control (land abandonment). Adjacent soil under natural vegetation was used as a reference for local, high‐quality soil and as a control for comparison with the agricultural soils under different management practices. Oat straw mulching led to higher levels of water‐soluble carbohydrates, GRSP and AS and lower soil erosion rates, resulting in values similar to those in the soil under native vegetation. The lowest levels of carbohydrates and GRSP were for the plots that were treated with herbicide or were ploughed. The maintenance of and increases in stable aggregates promoted by the different agricultural management practices over the years were attributed to increases in labile organic fractions such as carbohydrates and to the GRSP content. The results demonstrate that land abandonment (control plot) or the use of a cover (plants or straw) contributes to increases in soil quality and reduces the risk of erosion. The research also shows that sustainable agricultural management allows soil to recover and that the use of straw mulching is the most effective management strategy.