Return of the wolf haunts Spanish farmers

Spain’s protected wolves are heading south and causing havoc for livestock farmers

Farmer Jacinto Serranos with a calf that has been killed by a wolf.  “I can’t sleep at night, I’m always on tenterhooks, wondering if the wolves are going to attack.”

Farmer Jacinto Serranos with a calf that has been killed by a wolf. “I can’t sleep at night, I’m always on tenterhooks, wondering if the wolves are going to attack.”

 

“The calf was three days old and the wolves attacked it by taking bites out of its ribs and then they left it to die on its own,” says Jacinto Serranos. The farmer is crouching over the corpse of the animal, which he found still half alive the previous morning. “It’s a typical wolf attack,” he says. “It’s what they do: they kill for the sake of killing, for fun.”

On this occasion, the same wolves struck twice. A few hundred yards away lies the corpse of another, larger calf with the flesh ripped off the back of its neck .

Serranos owns 80 cattle on farmland near the tiny village of Mengamunoz in Ávila. It’s 120km west of Madrid, in the foothills of the Gredos mountains, where farmers have to work hard to make a living. Animals frequently have to be retrieved after straying into the hills and in the winter it is bitterly cold. In addition, cuts have been made to farming subsidies due to a central government austerity programme.

But the Iberian wolf has become yet another problem for farmers in these parts. Previously contained within the northwestern corner of Spain, in recent years it has moved southwards, reproducing and attacking livestock.

“I can’t sleep at night, I’m always on tenterhooks, wondering if the wolves are going to attack,” says Serranos. “I have nightmares about the wolves attacking and I wake up and want to go out and see if my animals are all right.”

He has tried a variety of wolf deterrents, including leaving a transistor radio on at full volume next to his cows at night or setting up a flashing police siren in the field near them. But still the wolves come, usually picking out the smallest or weakest animals in the herd.

In the last few years, Serranos has lost eight cows – 10 per cent of his livestock – and he says all the farmers nearby have suffered attacks. A few days after the attack on Serranos’s livestock, another farmer in Mengamunoz lost a calf to wolves.

In this area, farming is by far the main economic activity and farmers have insurance which gives them compensation after losing an animal to a wolf attack. But they complain it is expensive and never covers the full cost of a loss or veterinary charges. “There hadn’t been wolves around here for the last 35 or 40 years,” Serranos says, “and life then was a lot easier. Now, with the wolves, all the animals are nervous.”

That psychological impact has another cost which insurance does not cover: it has caused several of his heifers to suffer miscarriages.

“If you want to finish with farming, all you have to do is let the wolf run wild,” says Julio López, who leads the local agricultural union, which campaigns for the animal to be eliminated from the area.

Spain has an estimated 2,000-2,500 wolves, the biggest population in western Europe. Having come close to being wiped out by the mid-20th century, its comeback started with new conservation laws introduced in the 1970s. The migration of Spaniards away from rural areas towards cities further encouraged its spread and in the last decade or so, wolves have moved into areas such as the Guadarrama mountains north of Madrid and Ávila.

This year, the region with most wolves, Castilla-León, has seen just over 2,000 animals killed by them, according to the local farmers’ association, with over a quarter of those in the Ávila area. Figures gathered by the region’s government show that over the past decade, more than 20,000 sheep, calves, goats and foals have been killed or wounded by wolves, with the trend picking up noticeably since 2008.

The wolves have become increasingly audacious. In November, four cows were killed just four kilometres outside the walls of the capital of Ávila, a city of 60,000 inhabitants. “The wolves have increased their numbers and now they are in areas where people have forgotten how to protect their animals,” says Juan Carlos Blanco, a wolf expert who used to advise the Spanish Environment Ministry. “They have a particularly big impact in Ávila because there is a lot of extensive cattle farming there.”

He says that many decades ago, when wolves were common in that area, farming methods were adapted to the predator, with more enclosures and dogs to guard livestock.

He also points to political confusion on the issue. The wolf is protected from hunting in all areas south of the River Duero. However, in 2013, the main political parties in Ávila, which is below the Duero, contradicted this regulation by backing a motion to make the province “wolf free”. Meanwhile, the Spanish government is lobbying the European Commission to reduce the protected status of the Iberian wolf so that it can be hunted anywhere in the country.

Spain closely observes its wildlife regulations – a member of the Civil Guard is currently facing investigation for allegedly shooting dead five wolves in Cantabria without a licence. Conservationists however fear the political mood is turning against the wolf.

Luis Suárez, who heads the biodiversity programme of the World Wildlife Fund in Spain, acknowledges that although some farmers do suffer if wolves repeatedly attack their animals, it is not a major problem for the agricultural sector overall. “The damage [caused by wolves] is negligible, other causes of death for livestock are much greater,” he says. “It is a species that fulfils a key role in the ecosystem. It is the biggest predator in the Iberian Peninsula and in Europe, it regulates wild animals, preying on weaker or ill animals to help maintain a balance.”

Suárez says that there is a tendency to use the wolf as a scapegoat for other issues afflicting Spain’s extensive farming industry, such as falling subsidies and red tape. As the wolf attacks have risen in recent years, so have cases of the animal being poisoned. Suárez says that officially, over 130 have been killed in the past decade, although the real figure could be much higher, and he points to farmers as the obvious suspects.

Both Suárez and Juan Carlos Blanco believe the solution to the wolf threat lies in farmers changing their methods of keeping livestock. They accept that this costs money, as does providing farmers with more adequate compensation in the wake of attacks. However, as Blanco explains, humans and wolves have a complicated relationship.

“One of the things studies have shown is that the further away wolves are, the more people like them,” he says, “and the nearer they are, the more unfavourable is society’s view of them.”

This theory is certainly borne out up in the hills of Ávila, where the wolf is uncomfortably near, stopping farmers like Jacinto Serranos from sleeping at night. “The authorities protect the wolf,” says his wife, Mari, “but they never realise that it’s the farmers who need to be protected.”

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