The Iberian wolf: a predator returns

After disappearing from the hillsides of Catalonia, the feared hunters are back

Girona / Castellterçol - 13 Apr 2011 - 16:17 CEST

Among the rolling hills of Castellterçol, a village of 2,500 in Barcelona province, a mastiff puppy is playing with the flock at La Ginebreda, an ecological sheep farm. "She needs to grow up with them," explains the stockbreeder, Dirk Madriles. Dana the puppy is four months old, but in four more months playtime will end, and she will become a fierce guardian instead. This is no ordinary sheepdog. She was given to Madriles by the Catalan government as part of an initiative to deal with the latest threat to sheep and cattle farmers in this area: wolves.

The ancestral predators, which were hunted down by man until their complete extinction in Catalonia a century ago, are back and killing farm animals no more than 40 kilometers out of Barcelona. Their return is being hailed by biologists and environmentalists, but stockbreeders are wary. "I think it's a fine thing for them to settle down here - they are coming home again. But they are also a threat to my future, and I lose sleep over it," says Dirk Madriles, who has lost seven sheep to wolves in six months.

"It's a threat to my future, and I lose sleep over it," says one stockbreeder

The wolf population has been expanding in Spain for a long time now, especially in the northwest of the country. Wolves reached the Catalan Pyrenees through France, and they are taking back old territory in rural areas that are sparsely populated for the most part. But in Moianès, the area where Castellterçol is located, their presence poses a great challenge, because the local economy is based on tourism and a vigorous ecological food and agriculture industry.

Although the first wolf attack took place eight years ago, the incident was kept under wraps. "Very few people in the village know about it," says Pilar Clapers, 43, who heads an environmental group. "Those of us who knew decided not to talk about it, because people get defensive about wolves." Village authorities in Castellterçol and the nearby Castellcir did not exactly spread the news, either. "We still don't know whether it's true or just a legend," says the deputy mayor of Castellterçol, Joan Sala. In fact, not even the livestock breeders raised their voices, following the regional government of Catalonia's request for discretion. The wolf has been a well-kept secret in a land full of vacation homes.

Jesús and Bartomeu Suriñach still remember the stealthy rustling they heard in the bushes, and the 12 dead sheep they found half-eaten. "We knew this was a different kind of predator - we never saw it, it was just a shadow," say these sheep farmers from Castellcir. "All you saw was the trail of blood," says Bartomeu. "The flock didn't even move... The sheep were killed one by one and dragged to the mountain."

In 2002, the Suriñachs sustained what was probably the first wolf attack in the Moianès area since the 19th century. It came as such a surprise that regional authorities took months to confirm it.

Environmental experts at the Catalan government had been expecting Iberian wolves to arrive in the region at some point, given their expansion elsewhere in Spain. But that's not the way it happened. Jorge Echegaray, a researcher at the Biological Station of Doñana, explains that fierce opposition to the presence of wolves by farmers from other parts of Spain, such as the Basque Country, prevented the Iberian wolf from moving east into Catalonia.

Instead, that niche was occupied by a subspecies of wolf originating from the Italian Abruzzo mountains. These wolves took barely 20 years to cross the Alps and all of France before settling down in the Pyrenees.

Using genetic testing of samples found at the site of killings, the Catalan government has identified 13 wolf individuals over the last 10 years. Of these, only one was female, making it harder for the species to reproduce here. After crossing the border, the wolves settled down in the Cadí massif, from where they have made at least four raids into the Barcelona area.

Between 2004 and 2010, wolves killed at least 85 head of livestock in Catalonia, of which the last 10 deaths occurred near Barcelona. The increase in wolf attacks led the Catalan government to set up a fund in 2007 to compensate breeders for their losses. Payments range from 95 euros for a lamb aged under 12 months to 2,150 euros for an adult cow. But the money available is still insufficient: 9,364 euros since 2004. Jordi García Petit, director of the Cadí natural park, believes that preventive measures are bearing fruit. There are around 5,000 head of cattle, 8,000 sheep and 1,000 goats in the park, and none of these animals were attacked last year; unlike in the Moianès area.

Yet the number of animals lost to wolves pales in comparison to the greatest scourge of stockbreeders: wild dogs. According to official figures, between 2005 and 2010 these animals killed 648 head of cattle. But because attacks by dogs are not eligible for compensation, farmers tend to attribute the attacks to wolves. For this reason, each claim is analyzed individually through genetic testing by government experts.

Environmental groups are staunch supporters of the wolf despite the drawbacks. "There are fears due to the density of the population. Very few people live in the Pyrenees, but here, we are close to big cities and a stone's throw from Barcelona," says Clapers. "If any other species had been recovered, the Generalitat [the Catalan government] would have shouted it from the rooftops. But the wolf inspires a primeval fear; we have to fight the effect of stories like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs..."

"Our goal is to eliminate mistrust on the part of the stockbreeders," says Jordi Ruiz, head of the Catalan government's department of fauna, flora and pet protection. By handing out dogs like Dana to this community, the Generalitat hopes to foster peaceful coexistence between the farmers and the wolves, whose cunning will likely see them avoid a confrontation with trained dogs and opt for easier prey.