A twig snaps, a crow calls, but nothing moves in the dense pine forests of Spain’s Guadarrama Mountains. Vultures and eagles soar over the snowcapped peaks, and wild boars roam the valleys below as they have for centuries. However, for the farmers who work this land, a threatening and worrying comeback is taking place in this timeless landscape, home to Spain’s newest national park.
After an absence of 70 years, the wolf is back in the Guadarrama Mountains and breeding just 65km from Madrid.
There have been sightings for several years of lone males, but camera traps recently picked up a family of three cubs, two adults and a juvenile. To the consternation of the farmers who believed that this ancient foe had left the hills for ever, breeding packs are expected to follow. The bloody results are plain to see. In the past two months about 100 sheep and cattle have been killed near Buitrago, in the northern foothills of the area, says Juan Carlos Blanco, a wolf specialist and adviser to the Spanish Ministry of the Environment.
“Guadarrama can support two, even three, packs. We think there are now six packs within 100km of Madrid. When they arrive in a new area, the shepherds do not know what to do. Then they find ways to protect their flocks with dogs or fences. It’s a natural event and the wolf will not go away now,” he says. “Maybe hunters will exterminate one pack, but others will take its place. Wolves are very flexible and resilient.”
Spain is now a wolf stronghold. While the population had diminished to just a few packs in isolated regions in the 1960s, there are now thought to be more than 250 breeding groups and more than 2,000 individuals.
“As wolf numbers grow so does the number of attacks on animals. From 2005 there were about 1,500 attacks a year. Then in 2008 it jumped to more than 2,000,” says Luis Suarez, WWF biodiversity officer in Madrid. “In the past seven years, 13,000 sheep, 200 goats and several hundred cows have been attacked across Spain.”
In the 19th century, the European wolf was almost driven to extinction as hunters made a living from the bounties paid by villagers.
However, conservationists are surprised at how fast wolves have returned during recent years, populating areas where they were last seen more than 100 years ago.
Wolf populations in Europe quadrupled between 1970 and 2005 and there may now be 25,000 animals, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
They have been seen within a few kilometers of major cities including Berlin, Rome and Athens.
Last month, one was found near the Dutch hamlet of Luttelgeest, just 48km from Holland’s densely populated North Sea coast.
They are also reportedly expanding their range in France, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia and Italy, with sightings in Belgium and Denmark.
In the past 10 years wolves have arrived in the Pyrenees from Italy and the Alps, Blanco says.
“They have crossed 450km and a lot of roads to get there. So far they are not breeding there, but it’s only a matter of time,” he says.
In Germany, where they were hunted out of existence in the 19th century, there are now thought to be about 160 wolves in 17 packs in the state of Brandenburg.
Cubs were born last year in Heidekreis in Lower Saxony for the first time in 150 years, and there were sightings in the states of Hessen and Rheinland-Pfalz.