Rewilding herbivores in Iberia

November 11, 2011

The Iberian Peninsula is one of the oldest inhabited territories in Europe. In Western Iberia man always lived in and with nature resulting in a spectacular landscape with dehesas, mountain ridges and valleys with steep cliffs. Right now, the situation is changing.

People from villages are leaving their ancient activities and move to big cities. The result is the problem of land abandonment and this problem increases day by day. Together with Rewilding Europe the Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre and Associação Transumância e Natureza are working on solutions. Both for man and nature.

Western Iberia is the area located between Duero river, in the north, and Tajo river in the south, both in Spain and Portugal. Western Iberia is famous for the dehesa . An ancient example of the combination of culture and nature; typical Mediterranean mosaic forest with oak trees and open land. The dehesa is one of the most important habitats in Europe extremely rich in flora and fauna.

The dehesa is on it’s best in Spain with huge areas of mature half-open forests but also mountains and rivers. The area has some of the most endangered species on earth like the Iberian imperial eagle, Iberian lynx and Black vulture.

We are two organizations working in this area: Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre (FNYH) in Campanarios de Azaba (Spain and Portugal) and Associação Transumância e Natureza (ATN)in Faia Brava (Portugal).  We are very enthusiastically working in this region and trying to rewild it. We started using wild large herbivores in natural densities to maintain the landscape. The grazing also helps protection against fires that are one of the biggest problems in these latitudes.

Wild herbivores occurred in Western Iberia a long time ago. It can be seen in Côa Valley. Here rock carvings give proof that wild herbivores like aurochs , Iberian ibex, red deer, wild horse and other animals roamed the area already 20.000 years ago. With the arrival of farmers  and the agricultural conversion of the land almost all large wild herbivores became extinct and with that also the main predator, the wolf.

Now land is being abandoned we have a chance to restore this! In future the area should have back several wild herbivores like roe deer, red deer, Iberian ibex and wild cattle and horses. For reintroducing wild cattle Taurus, Rewilding Europe, FNYH and ATN cooperate to recreate the extinct Uro or Aurochs (Bos primigenius). The aurochs was the ancestor of all living cattle. We want cattle and horses with similarities to the extinct species as shown in the Paleolithic art in Côa Valley; species that are also adapted to the local environment.

In Spain we will start with Sayaguesa cattle. They are close relatives, in genetic terms, to the aurochs. These Sayaguesas will be cross bred with other races. The ultimate goal is a new Iberian cow and horse with similar characteristics to the extinct wild ones. And then the ecologic gap left open a long time ago will be restored.

The wild horses that will be reintroduced  at the start in Spain will be Retuertas. An ancient Spanish horse race. In Portugal we already work with Garranos and in future maybe with Przewalzkis.

Red deers is another large herbivore that will be reintroduced in the nearby future. This wild herbivore has an important role and it has disappeared only a few decades ago. With Rewilding Europe we want to give these majestic animalsa new chance.

Our future goal is a huge wild area where visitors can come and will see wild nature and realize that they can travel inside Europe and see abundant wildlife in beautiful landscapes; like an European Serengeti safari. We are working hard reaching this by working in several reserves in the whole area, which is near to 1.300.000 hectares.  And we are hoping our pilots will function as inspiring examples for the area.

Campanarios de Azaba

Since 2009, FNYH is working in their own private dehesa reserve of 520 hectares called Campanarios de Azaba. Campanarios is the Spanish pilot project  right on the border and in the near future also crossing the border into Portugal. Large herbivores will maintain this area in a natural way.

The herbivores are already selected: wild horses, wild bulls and red deer. The combination of these three reintroduced species with wild species that were still here like wild boars and roe deer, completes the natural grazing. That’s because each large herbivore has it´s own preferences eating plants and vegetables.

Faia Brava

ATN is owner of Portugal’s first private nature reserve Faia Brava. Faia Brava is the Portuguese Rewilding Europe pilot in Western Iberia. Faia Brava was a degraded, but still spectacular landscape with a deep river valley and a rolling plateau.

Five years ago ATN started a successful experiment using Garranos, a Portuguese horse breed. The reason was to control the vegetation and reduce the fire risk. The results are very good. The grazing helps to transform the area from a brushwood into a Mediterranean forest. Large wild herbivores where really missing in this ecosystem.

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