The Iberian wolf was long considered the enemy of shepherds, and by the 1970s, it had been hunted to the brink of extinction. But a conservation drive in the sierras of northwestern Spain and northern Portugal has seen a fourfold increase in wolf numbers, and a revival of age-old non-lethal methods to protect livestock has prompted a newfound respect among farmers for their former nemesis.
When, in 1896, Spanish railway workers gouged a narrow trench through the Sierra de Atapuerca to join the mines of Sierra de la Demanda with Bilbao's steel mills, they found more than limestone. Unwittingly, they stumbled upon one of the most astounding archaeological sites of all time: a labyrinth of caves filled with the bones, tools and paintings of our earliest ancestors.
Locked between countless layers of sediment, laid down like the pages of the world's greatest history book, was a record of almost one million years of evolution. Amid the bones of primitive humans were those belonging to a myriad of animal species, including hyenas, European jaguars, lions and wolves. Today, just one of these remains: the Iberian wolf.
When conjuring up a mental image of wild roaming wolves, it's natural to bring to mind those in Canada and the northern parts of the USA. We picture them in the snowy wastelands of Alaska, or amid the magnificent rocky peaks of Yellowstone National Park; vast, primordial, undisturbed places.
The Iberian wolf faces a very different world. It makes its dens in cornfields and uses flyovers to cross congested national highways. It eats sheep and brawls with stray farm dogs, occasionally wandering into villages.
Yet despite living in such proximity to humans, Iberian wolves have not merely managed to keep a claw hold on the Iberian Peninsula; they're actually increasing in number. Almost completely extirpated during the 1950s and '60s, their population size has more than quadrupled from 400 individuals in 1970 to the present 2,500. Packs have started recolonising their former territory, spreading from the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula towards the Basque country in the east and Madrid in the south. And everywhere they go, they inspire a mixture of fear, love and hatred, as only a wolf can.
Luis Calcada works in the rugged Cabreira Mountains near the Portuguese village of Formigueiro. Each day, he accompanies his goats on their long descent to the irrigated grazing pastures at the foot of the mountain. Asked how many animals he has lost to wolves, Calcada's reply is evocative: 'As many as I have now.' He currently has 150 goats.
Calcada vividly describes the attacks he has witnessed in broad daylight and explains how a wolf will patiently tail a herd, waiting for its opportunity to cut out a straggler. He also tells of a close neighbour who had lost seven goats in one bloody killing spree just a fortnight prior to our conversation.
Although losses to wolves are government-compensated, the paperwork can be drawn out for as long as a year, and compensation doesn't take into account the future economic impact of such losses. As a result, farmers are inclined to take the law in their own hands and solve their wolf problems with strychnine-laced baits.
In a drive to protect the wolves against such vigilante justice, Portuguese wolf conservation association Grupo Lobo is working with shepherds to revive an ancient custom: the use of massive guarding dogs to protect livestock. This practice originated on the Iberian Peninsula as far back as 3000 BC. Now, with the recent spike in wolf numbers, farmers are once again turning to these ancient breeds in an effort to keep the predators at bay.
Placed with the livestock shortly after birth, the dogs form their primary bond with the animals and will go to any length to protect them. …