Wolf hunting ban pits farmers against conservationists in Spain

A ban on killing wolves came into effect on Wednesday, bringing northern Spain, where controlled hunting has been permitted, in line with other areas of the country where it has long been prohibited.

Wolf hunting ban pits farmers against conservationists in Spain
The ban on wolf hunting has delighted some and dismayed others, notably in the livestock farming heartlands of the northwest – a paradise for the Iberian wolf. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

A 4×4 pulls up on a dirt road in northwest Spain and livestock farmer Ana Vega climbs out, walking over to a ditch where a few days ago a wolf killed a calf.

“They haven’t left anything… devoured everything,” she said, pointing at the ground. There is nothing left of the carcass, not even the smallest bone.

Wolves have long roamed the valley Ungilde, a paradise for the Iberian wolf near the Portuguese border, four hours’ drive from Madrid.

Controlled hunting has helped to keep their numbers down in the area — and protect livestock — but on Wednesday a ban on killing the animals came into effect, inflaming farmers but delighting conservationists.

READ ALSO: Spain moves to ban wolf hunting and give species protected status

The hot-button ban brings northern Spain in line with the rest of the country, where hunting wolves has long been prohibited.

Many herders and farmers like Vega are dismayed over the new rule, fearing that a proliferation of wolves will put the animals at risk.

But conservationists have long pushed for the ban, saying the species should be protected.

“In this tragic wolf tale, there are three main actors: the herders, the conservationists and the hunters. And each one has his own solution,” said forest ranger Carlos Zamora. 

‘Wolves’ paradise’

There are eight packs of wolves in the Sierra de la Culebra, which spans 70,000 hectares in the northwestern tip of the Castilla y Leon region.

Each pack is made up of 10 wolves, and there are several more lone individuals, Zamora explained. The number has remained steady for the past two decades, he added.

The area is famed for the Iberian wolf — or canis lupus signatus, a sub-species of grey wolf which lives mainly in northwestern Spain.

Its image is everywhere — on billboards and t-shirts and plastered all over souvenir shops. 

“It’s always been a wolves’ paradise here,” said Zamora from behind his binoculars, scanning the horizon under the morning sun.

Until now, controlled hunting has been allowed north of the Duero river, which flows across northern Spain, to keep numbers down.

In the Cantabria region, they planned to cull 34 wolves this year — 20 percent of the local population.

But Spain’s Socialist government decided to unify the rules, banning wolf hunting throughout the peninsula, following similar moves in France and Italy.

“When you’re talking about a unique species like the Iberian wolf, responsibility for its conservation lies with all regions, it can’t be just in one area,” junior environment minister Hugo Moran told AFP.

“It’s a shared responsibility.”

But the news has angered the regions of Cantabria, Castilla y Leon, Asturias and Galicia, where the vast majority of wolves roam, with officials vowing to appeal.

While ecologists have hailed the ban as “an important step” towards species conservation, farmers are up in arms.

“It is unbelievable that communities that don’t have wolves can impose their radical environmental agenda on us,” raged Castilla y Leon’s UCCL farmer’s union.

READ ALSO: Spain’s endangered Iberian Lynx population back on the rise

Unfair competition

Vega remembers a time when locals took matters into their own hands if a wolf killed a sheep.

“They would go out and catch it or kill it,” she said, her phone full of gruesome images of carcasses and half-eaten animals.

“I’m not saying we should kill them all, but that we all have to exist together,” she added.

Extensive farming where animals graze on local resources involves a big investment to protect them against predators.

Vega has a pack of 15 mastiffs — dogs as big as ponies which are not cheap to keep, what with vets bills and the huge piles of food they gobble up.

She has also paid for tractors to uproot vegetation where wolves like to hide on the land.

Farmer Jose Castedo has shelled out too, installing electric fencing to safeguard his 450 sheep.

“There are very few farms like this here,” said the 62-year-old of his fortified enclosure.

He worries about “unfair competition” from properties where flocks are kept behind one-metre-high fences and monitored for just a few hours a day.

The ecology ministry has pledged to invest and help, with Moran from the environment ministry promising “financial help” to those who live in areas that are home to “large carnivores”.

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Police operation targets illegal water tapping in Spain

More than 130 people were arrested or placed under investigation for illegal water tapping last year, Spain’s Guardia Civil police said on Wednesday following a huge operation.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park”
Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in Andalusia. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

During the year-long operation, “133 people were arrested or investigated for extracting water through more than 1,533 illegal infrastructure devices”, the police’s environmental unit said in a statement.

A similar operation in 2019 had targeted 107 people.

Spain is one of the European countries most at risk from the impact of drought caused by global warming, scientists say.

Water usage issues are often at the heart of heated political debates in Spain where intensive agriculture plays an important role in the economy.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in the southern Andalusia region, one of Europe’s largest wetlands and a Unesco World Heritage bird sanctuary.

They were also operating in “in the basins of Spain’s main rivers”.

In Doñana, police targeted 14 people and 12 companies for the illegal tapping of water for irrigation, a police spokesman said.

Ecologists regularly raise the alarm about the drying up of marshes and lagoons in the area, pointing the finger at nearby plantations, notably growing strawberries, which are irrigated by illegally-dug wells.

“The overexploitation of certain aquifers for many reasons, mainly economic, constitutes a serious threat to our environment,” the Guardia Civil said.

The European Court of Justice rapped Spain over the knuckles in June for its inaction in the face of illegal water extraction in Donana which covers more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) and is home to more than 4,000 species, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx.

According to the government’s last official estimate, which dates back to 2006, there were more than half a million illegal wells in use.

But in a 2018 study, Greenpeace estimated there were twice as many, calculating that the quantity of stolen water was equivalent to that used by 118 million people — two-and-a-half times the population of Spain.

Spanish NGO SEO/Birdlife also on Wednesday raised the alarm about the “worrying” state of Spain’s wetlands.