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Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Rewilding setting

The Iberian Peninsula has witnessed some of the earliest finds of human settlement in Europe, and already 22,000 years ago, early mankind left behind a strong legacy in this rewilding area, through an amazing series of rock carvings depicting the local wildlife. A heritage written in stone.

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The Côa valley, on the Portuguese side of the rewilding area, harbours a huge collection of outdoor rock carvings along the valley sides, and it is seen as one of the world’s richest finds of its kind, with over 2,000 carvings found as yet, dated from c. 22,000 years ago and forward. Almost all of them showing the most important local wildlife for the humans at the time: aurochs, wild horse, red deer, ibex and fish. All of which have been gone since centuries, but might now very soon be coming back!

On the Spanish side, this area is today famous for its ham – El Jamón Iberico and Jamón Serrano – produced from the black pigs that to a large extent feed on acorns from the Holm Oaks of the dehesa woodland savannah. The other big business here has for centuries been the raising of Spanish fighting bulls, for the bullfighting arenas. They also ate a lot of acorns. A job that previously was done mainly by wild boar and aurochs.

As in so many other parts of Europe, a lot of the traditional land management, will soon be history. Rural depopulation, with ageing inhabitants and declining livestock numbers is leading to a rapid change of the vegetation cover in the landscapes. This, in turn creates both an opportunity and a challenge for nature conservation. The less intensive land use offers the development of a more natural tree composition with shrubs, but there is also a great risk that without grazing pressure, huge areas will evolve into very dense scrub with much less biodiversity and that are much more vulnerable to forest fires. There has also been a temptation to plant exotic tree species – like eucalyptus or foreign pine species – on abandoned lands, with disastrous consequences for the natural fauna and flora and the original landscape character, together with a hugely increased fire hazard.

Western Iberia is currently a region without that many alternatives when it comes to economic prospects. With a lack of major industries and dwindling agricultural production, the regional governments are already investing in a new economy based on education, culture, tourism, nature and attractive landscapes. The re-creation of more natural, wilder landscapes with beautiful wildlife could serve as a vital component of this new identity and a natural part of a better economic basis for the future.

An unprecedented, large-scale opportunity exists here today for the rewilding of the borderlands of western Spain and northeastern Portugal. More than 1.3 million hectares of land here have already been set aside for conservation in the form of Natura 2000 areas, with a very interesting mix of natural and semi-natural habitats. Side by side with dehesas and montados are mountain ranges – “sierras” – that are popular with cliff loving animals such as vultures, eagles and Iberian ibex, together with river valleys inhabited by otters and pond turtles. On the poorer soils on granite bedrock on the Portuguese side, the landscape is dominated by very small land holdings that have had cultivation based on olives, almonds, and cereals – which are now also increasingly being abandoned.