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Western Iberia I – Campanarios de Azába, Spain

April 18, 2011

From the wide and relatively intact Dehesa forests of the Salamanca district in Castilla y León. After five minutes in the Campanarios de Azába nature reserve, we understand that we must be in the right place with the impressive sight of more than 100 large raptors slowly taking to their wings in the air thermals of the morning sun over the holm and cork oaks of the reserve.

Amongst them around 20 black vultures, 30 red kites, 2 short-toed eagles, 2 black storks, 10 white storks and a bunch of smaller raptors. Spain is the No 1 raptor country of Europe, and the Salamanca district is probably the No 1 raptor district in Spain. It looked like the sky over the Serengeti.

This 542 hectare reserve, a previous cattle ranching estate, is now owned by Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre, FNYH, who runs this Spain’s first private nature reserve. The chairman of FNYH, Dr. Carlos Sánchez, explains that the plan is to use it as a model case for how the Dehesa terrain could be managed in a more biodiversity-friendly way, with less human management and with the reintroduction of a number of the now missing original wildlife species.

The Iberian lynx once had one of its last strongholds here, the red deer also disappeared, even the rabbits almost too (!).

And two other, really crucially important wildlife species are also missing, just like they are throughout the rest of Europe: The wild horse and the aurochs – both species which are very frequent in all the ancient rock carvings and art across Spain. They must, in old times have been two very important wildlife species for the ecosystem. Possibly the two most important of them all, together with what was then abundant, the rabbit.

Now all three are virtually gone, which of course influences the way the landscape will look, if the human management of the land is also stopped. So it is very easy to understand that if you want to have aspects of the ”original” biodiversity processes taking place here, all three of these species must be brought back in significant numbers. Otherwise it will all turn into forest and bush, which is not natural.

Without rabbits, no lynx. But also, without lynx no strong rabbit comeback, since the lynx is said to remove most of the other smaller predators that eat the rabbit, and that are presently preying upon them unhindered. In this reserve, FNYH has now been re-introducing the rabbit and are trying to help their numbers increase. Next in line is the red deer and the wild horse. The dream is of course the Iberian lynx, Spain’s national flagship species. But maybe even more ambitious are plans to be the first place to reintroduce the re-created ”aurochs”, where it has belonged for some 10 000 years or more. The aurochs is a flagship species that the Spanish nation has not even thought of as possible yet. But in the meantime, FNYH plans to use ancient domestic breeds of wild cattle, that will have the same ecological function as the aurochs.

FNYH also hopes to greatly expand the surface of the reserve to at least 2 000 or maybe even 5 000 hectares, and on top of that reach agreements with the surrounding landowners to possibly create, within a decade, a rewilding area in this continous Dehesa landscape, of some 70 000 hectares. All with different levels of human use, but much, much wilder than today, and much, much richer in wildlife.

This is one of Rewilding Europe’s five first pilot project sites.

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