Wild horses released in Western Iberia rewilding area

July 27, 2012

A herd of 24 Retuerta horses, coming from the Doñana biological station in southern Spain, were released in the Campanarios de Azaba reserve on July 27. The release was possible thanks to the Rewilding Europe initiative and the collaboration between the Nature and Man Foundation and the Doñana Biological Station.

FNYH released twenty-four Retuerta horses in the Campanarios de Azaba reserve, in the province of Salamanca, Spain. The creation of this new population of Retuertas will help to guarantee the survival of this rare breed in Doñana and will strengthen the process of natural grazing by large herbivores in the Campanarios de Azaba reserve, part of one of the current five rewilding areas of Rewilding Europe.

Natural grazing by wild herbivores (such as wild horses, wild cattle, bison and many other species) disappeared from large parts of Europe when humans occupied these areas. Wild horses and cattle were domesticated and used for agriculture. With the large scale land abandonment now happening in many parts of Europe, livestock is also disappearing, leading to the simplification of ecosystems and reducing the dehesas that compose the natural Mediterranean mosaic landscapes.

Rewilding Europe contributes to the increase of biodiversity in Western Iberia, by reintroducing natural grazing as a key ecological process. In order to reach its goals in Western Iberia, the initiative has started to work in two pilot areas: Campanarios de Azaba biological reserve (Spain) and Faia Brava reserve (Portugal). The reintroduction of wild living herbivores will not only support the recovery of natural spaces and increase biodiversity; it will also provide new opportunities for local communities, landowners and stakeholders in the area.

Retuerta horses

This horse breed got its name from the so-called retuertas, flooded areas inside the Doñana National Park, where the sands slowly drain water towards the salt marsh. They work as natural drinking places for the animals. There is only a small number of Retuerta horses with ancestral genes left: in total around 150 animals in 2012.

The Retuerta breed  was originally used for agriculture work but other breeds that are more suitable for these purposes slowly replaced them. This in turn led to near extinction of the Retuerta horse, with only half a dozen animals left in 1980s.

After rigorous comparative genetic analysis with other ancient races like Asturcón, Losino or Potoca, a study published in 2006 has discovered that Retuertas are one of the oldest horse breeds in Europe.

The new Retuerta population in Campanarios will be treated as wild living animals, and live in social groups, grazing the reserve which is currently 500 hectares.

“The release of the 24 Retuerta horses is an important step in the rewilding of Western Iberia”, says Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe. “I hope the herds will adapt soon to this new area and will grow in numbers. I also hope the local stakeholders and landowners in the area will see the benefits of the rewilding initiative in the area, and will support or join our work. Together with the planned reintroduction of other species, Western Iberia will become one of the leading examples of rewilding in Europe”.

“Rewilding Europe offers a new opportunity to manage Western Iberia,” Carlos Sanchez Martinez, director of FNYH said at the release. “Wild herbivores help prevent forest fires and keep landscapes open, which is a key to greater biodiversity. Retuerta horses are invaluable. It is both a privilege and a huge responsibility for FNYH to be custodians of the second population of this breed of horses.”

Rewilding Europe and Campanarios de Azaba

Rewilding Europe is an initiative by WWF Netherlands, ARK Nature, Conservation Capital and Wild Wonders of Europe, with the ambition of making Europe a wilder place, with much more space for wilderness, wildlife and natural processes. Rewilding Europe aims to rewild one million hectares of land by 2020. Rewilding Europe is currently working in five rewilding areas, Western Iberia is one of them.

The key area in Western Iberia is the Campanarios de Azaba biological reserve, located in Espeja’s municipality in the region of Ciudad Rodrigo. Pasture lands with different oak habitats (Quercus ilex, Quercus pyrenaica) characterize the area and several distinguished species can be found here, for example the Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus) and the Black Stork (Ciconia nigra).

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