Herd of wild horses bring new life into depopulated Spain

by Lorraine Williamson
wild horses help rewilding project

PROVINCIA DE TERUEL – The introduction of a herd of wild horses in the epicentre of depopulated Spain marks the start of the ambitious Rewilding Iberia project. This renaturation aims to meet the challenges of the present. 

100,000 years ago, the territory of what is now Spain had a very different appearance. Large herbivores, such as bison, aurochs (ancestors of the cow) or wild horses grazed freely in an area where mankind had not yet left its indelible traces. However, now the rewilding movement proposes restoring part of that past to meet the challenges of the present. Think of the loss of biodiversity, large wildfires and the climate crisis. 

Rewilding 

The Rewilding Iberian Highlands project was presented in October in Cuenca. This is one of the Spanish provinces most affected by depopulation. It falls under Rewilding Europe, a Netherlands-based foundation established in 2011 at the initiative of four organisations:

  • WWF Netherlands
  • ARK Nature
  • Wild Wonders of Europe
  • Conservation Capital. 

The term ‘rewilding’ encompasses the return of wildlife, the restoration of ecological processes, the restoration of habitats and the support of the local economy by promoting nature-based businesses and nature tourism. 

‘Redesigning Spain’ 

“Renaturalisation should always be inspired by the past, but not to copy it today,” explains Jordi Palau. Palau is a forestry engineer and author of the book Rewilding Iberia, in which he explores the “great potential” for rewilding Spain. This scientific and philosophical movement, which has existed for four decades, has just launched its first project in our country. RTVE.es speaks with Palau about his work. 

See also: Dutch foundation with British funds wants to give empty Spain back to nature 

It is one of the least populated areas of the country – and of Europe -: the mountainous area between the provinces of Guadalajara, Cuenca and Teruel. The initiative covers 850,000 hectares in the epicentre of depopulated Spain. It is an area with diverse habitats and is rich in biodiversity. RTVE.es speaks with Jordi Palau, author of the book Rewilding Iberia. He is also a researcher in the Rewilding Iberian Highlands project. 

Semi-feral Serrano horses 

The first reintroductions of species have already started here in Cuenca: a herd of 13 semi-feral Serrano horses, an indigenous breed from the centre of the peninsula that is in danger of disappearing. Moreover, the aim is to “restore ecological processes that have been lost in our society”. In this case, it is about the “cleaning of the forest”, which is no longer carried out because traditional methods such as forestry or grazing have been lost, explains biologist and project manager, Pablo Schapira. 

‘It is nature that does the work’ 

Renaturation attempts to restore ecosystems through the introduction of species, the removal of human barriers in rivers, or the restoration of desiccated wetlands. In this way, efforts are being made to return the ecosystems to their most natural state, Schapira explains. “It’s about seeing what’s the most natural state that can be reached,” he adds. 

Once the restoration has been carried out, the ecosystem is intended to “maintain itself”, emphasises José María Rey Benayas, professor of ecology at the University of Alcalá. “There has to be human intervention to restore ecological processes, but once those processes are set in motion, it’s nature that does the work,” he says. 

Rewilding is much more than doing nothing 

“Rewilding isn’t doing nothing,” states Palau, referring to passive processes such as leaving the countryside. They cause “the impoverishment of the systems and the loss of variability in the territory”. Therefore, renaturation can actually contribute to the preservation of the population in depopulated Spain. It can attract tourists who love nature or are looking for specific fauna. It can also attract companies that market natural products. 

Ethical consequences of rewilding 

“I think a depopulated Spain can be restored. However, the problem is how we want to live with it. Are we willing to live in a small town with the certainty that wolves will be around?” asks Nuria Valverde, Researcher at the CSIC Institute of Philosophy in a project analysing the ethical consequences of rewilding. She points out that people now mainly have the idea that the game is against us. 

Large herbivores clean the forest and prevent fires 

In the Serranía Celtibérica area where the project will start, the promoters hope that the introduced wild herbivores will remove the excess grasses and scrub that cause fires. “Forest management is done naturally by animals,” argues Schapira. 

The initiative started in Mazarete (Guadalajara). There, in 2005, a fateful fire burned 13,000 hectares and 11 firefighters lost their lives. Since then, the forest has “grown too dense,” Schapira notes, increasing the risk of another fire. 

nederlandse orthopeed

The animals create more open areas of forest and keep the grass lower. In this way, they avoid the main cause of large fires: the excessive accumulation of fuel or biomass. 

Reintroduction of the mountain goat and wild bull species 

In addition to the horses that are already present in the area -for the time being on a mountain of 1,400 hectares-, the reintroduction of the mountain goat is being considered in the future, in addition to using existing species such as roe deer or wild boar. 

In addition to this specific project, the project leaders also propose the possibility of reintroducing the bull, a descendant of the aurochs, kept on a farm in Teruel, and the bison. The reintroduction of the bison is controversial, as the specimens now kept on farms belong to the European bison. There is no scientific evidence of this species occurring in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Future reintroduction of carnivores considered 

To control the number of herbivores, the project aims to introduce carnivores, such as the Iberian lynx, to the top of the food chain in the future. The lynx disappeared from the centre of the peninsula centuries ago. However, thanks to reintroduction, it can now be found in remote places in Andalucia and Castilla la Mancha. Rey also points to the bear and wolf as examples of carnivores that could fulfil this function. These species were widespread throughout the peninsula “until a few centuries ago”. 

Reintroduction of black vulture 

The last step would be carrion birds, many of them threatened. The project aims to reintroduce the black vulture and restore the bearded vulture. Birds would be brought from the Pyrenees. 

At the moment, the project is still in its early stages – it started in October – and a duration of 20 years has been set. It is financed by private funds and works with town halls and administrations at various levels to obtain land for renaturation to take place. For example, the pastures where horses have been reintroduced have been ceded by the Province of Guadalajara. 

The controversies of rewilding 

However, redevelopment initiatives are not without controversy. Víctor Resco de Dios, professor of forestry at the University of Lleida, warns that the intensity of the fires is increasing due to “large, interconnected forest masses”, one of the effects of not intervening with nature. 

According to him, it is not enough to release species such as horses, deer or goats to cut down the forests. The fuel tax they eliminate would be very low. In addition, these animals do not eat leaf litter, which is one of the main sources of biomass fueling wildfires. 

He adds another unwanted effect of “dehumanisation”: the loss of biodiversity that occurs when rural areas are abandoned and landscapes are homogenised. “Traditional management, small-scale farming and forestry activities precisely produce environments with greater landscape diversity. 

Another 2016 study warned that renaturation could be “Pandora’s box of conservation.” The introduction of species that have not been present in an area for centuries can have unforeseen consequences for those already in that area. Among those consequences is precisely the loss of local biodiversity. 

From agriculture to naturalisation 

The proponents of renaturation consulted for this report, on the contrary, point out that it is precisely a certain degree of intervention that can prevent harmful effects. Palau emphasises that rewilding is also compatible with traditional farming and ranching, and is trying to restore it. These mosaics of landscapes can actually stop the fires. 

Palau cites the experience on an English farm as an example of success in this regard. The owners have tried unsuccessfully for decades to devote themselves to agriculture, eventually choosing to rewild their 1,200 hectares. 

“They use different herbivores, such as deer, cows or wild boars,” he explains. Not only “did they see an impressive recovery in biodiversity”, but they emerged from the red of agriculture and found “new sources of income”. These include the establishment of an organic meat brand, environmental education activities and nature tourism. 

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