How do you live with large predators
Elena and her husband are patrons. Their herd of 400 free-roaming goats have been bred for generations to make the most of the mixture of forests and grasslands that cover their native mountain range in central Spain.
This type of farming produces some of the most sustainable meat and dairy that money can buy. They use little fodder and fertilizer and the goats maintain the biodiversity-rich grasslands through grazing. However, making a living here is becoming increasingly difficult. Across Spain, local butchers and cheesemakers have closed strict food standards that prevent farmers from selling directly to consumers, and agricultural subsidies benefit those who produce more than those who produce less.
The numbers of free-roaming sheep and goats have decreased dramatically in areas such as the Elena region, allowing the shrub to restore ancient pastures and blurring the boundaries between forests and villages. This made wildfires more widespread, threatening homes. It also enabled wild boars and deer to return in droves, raiding crops and causing outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis.
And above all, the wolf is at the door. literally.
The wolf is a specialist who can hunt both wild and domestic prey. This resilience, combined with stricter conservation laws and better habitat conditions, allowed its inhabitants and those of other European carnivores (bears, lynxes and wolverines) to recover and restore ancient lands across the continent.
Many people, especially city dwellers, welcome these changes. Attitudes toward predators have softened over the years as awareness of their important ecological role has grown. But in many rural areas, returning carnivores have come to symbolize the demise of traditional agricultural cultures. In some cases, their return has been met with suspected violence, as in the case of Belgium’s first wolf carrying young in over a century, who died under suspicious circumstances in 2019.
These are the cases we hear about most often. But there are also places in Europe where people live relatively peacefully side by side with carnivores. What is behind these harmonious relationships, and how do people adapt to the return of wolves elsewhere? This is what my research team and I set out to explore through case studies in Spain.
Working with wolves
Elena (who lives in “C” on the map) had mixed feelings about the wolves returning to her land. She hoped that they could control the boar and deer, but she was worried about how to prevent them from attacking her goats. She knew that protecting her flock would take a lot of time, money, and experience – she didn’t have any of it.
People in the Sanbria-La Carballeda region in northwestern Spain (denoted by the letter “A” on the map) are accustomed to the challenges of coexisting with large predators. The area was one of the last wolf strongholds before the hunting organization of the 1970s. Before that, wolves could be shot when you saw them. Today it has one of the densest wolf populations in Western Europe, concentrated in the hunting reserve of Sierra de la Culebra.
To defend their livestock, shepherds here keep packs of up to 21 guard dogs with their flocks. They accompany their sheep as they graze during the day and then lock them up at night. This reduces wolf attacks.
While wolves are not universally loved, their constant presence has allowed pastoralists to perfect these defense techniques and pass them on from generation to generation, making them feel like a natural part of farming.
Wolves also generated income for local councils through loot hunting. This was still legal when I was there, but it was banned by the Spanish government in September 2021. The common local perception was that hunting was helping to control population expansion.
Wolf tourism offers another source of income thanks to the ideal conditions – smooth terrain with mixed forests and open spaces. Companies offering wildlife enthusiasts the chance to spot wolves have sprung up in recent decades, making La Culebra an exotic place where wolf watching and hunting go hand in hand.
However, these revenues do not fit into the pockets of local livestock owners, and the meat they produce is not priced to reflect the benefits that this extra work generates for the wolves and the grasslands – unlike the price premiums for sustainable fish, for example. As farming among wolves requires extra work, many of them struggle to make ends meet in the increasingly competitive global market.
One of the shepherds I spoke to concluded: “Those of us who live in wolf territory have a much lower quality of life than those who do not live in wolf territory.” The demise of La Culebra’s farming sector presents a threat to coexistence with wildlife in Spain, as it represents one of the best examples of the functional relationship between wolves and traditional agriculture.
coexistence and prosperity
So how can we secure the future of both wolves and rural communities?
First of all, by financing successful coexistence. In Spain, wolf funding, such as that provided by the European Union, is mostly devoted to areas where there is conflict between wolves and the local population. This means that a Spanish Shepherd’s best chance of getting financial assistance, keeping guardian dogs or building a barn, is to live in a community where people are hostile to wolves.
We need to ensure places like La Culebra thrive, to make it clear to people like Elena, who wearily expect wolves to return, that living with them doesn’t necessarily mean lower standards of living. This can include certifications for sustainable meat, pastoralist schools and networks that help pastoralists share knowledge and collaborate, and pay for environmental services, such as fire prevention through grazing.
By protecting rural livelihoods and sustainable agriculture, we can make more room for wild species in Europe to return.
The names have been changed to protect the identities of the people in this article.
Author: Hannah Peterson – PhD Student, Institute for Sustainability Research, University of Leeds