Society 31/05/2022

Wolves settle in new areas in Catalonia

The presence of two new wolves has been confirmed in Moianès and Alta Ribagorça, in addition to the two in Ripollès and Port del Comte

4 min
Image of the wolf that has settled in Alta Ribagorça and that a camera captured this February

GironaDespite starring in many legends and folk tales, in the first third of the 20th century wolves disappeared from Catalan forests and mountains. Yet in the year 2000 it managed a comeback in the Pyrenees, after a very long journey from Italy, through the Alps and across France. Within the framework of the European project LoupO, the Catalan nature rangers are tasked with monitoring on the field and currently have detected four males living in Catalonia. Two of them were located some time ago –one in Ripollès and one in Port del Comte–, but there are two more that have been confirmed recently: one has settled in the region of Moianès and the other in Alta Ribagorça. The wolf monitoring coordinator, Gabriel Lampreave, emphasises that it is an animal that is very afraid of humans and, therefore, "there is no danger to people". However, with its return, the nightmares for shepherds and their herds, who are wolves' main victims, have also returned. "The administration compensates you for any animals lost, but this does not compensate you for all the losses you have suffered," laments a livestock farmer from Odèn (Solsonès), Florenci Serra, who after losing 150 animals had to switch from sheep to cattle to prevent the farm from going under.

Although they usually live in packs, the predators found in Catalonia are solitary individuals: there is no evidence that there are any females or that they have reproduced; and more wolves would have to arrive to be able to speak of a stable population. When the possible presence of an animal is detected in an area, Lampreave and his team try to confirm whether it is passing through or it has settled there. To find out, they travel to the spot where it was spotted, and look for its tracks in the form of footprints, fur and droppings, which they analyse in the laboratory afterwards. "It's not a quick job, it takes us months, almost a year, because they tend to cover very large areas and we need a lot of data to be able to confirm their presence," says the project coordinator.

Thanks to this detective work, rangers have been able to corroborate that wolves captured on camera in Aigüestortes National Park last year stayed on to live in a very wide area that includes the Alta Ribagorça, the Aragonese Ribagorça and part of the Vall d'Aran. "We have caught it with several cameras, we have analysed its droppings and by genetics we can confirm that it is the same specimen," he stresses.

Foresters take advantage of the winter to collect wolf urine samples in the snow.

This is the same procedure they have applied with the other new wolf they found in the Moianès region. In this case, they started their investigation after some attacks on herds, one of which belonged to a shepherd who had about a hundred goats and who prefers not to make his name public. Last summer he began to notice that he was missing animals, until a carcass was found in the middle of a meadow. Nature Rangers went to the scene, but when they arrived the vultures had left no evidence, and told him it must have been some dogs. "After two or three weeks, we had another attack, and it killed four more," he recalls. As a precaution, he spent a few months enclosing the herd in cover at night, but the goats don't like it and he left them out again. "In mid-February we found four more dead, all with the same pattern: three with a bite to the neck and the fourth already half-eaten," he says. The Rural Agents verified from the wounds that it had been a wolf.

Compensation for damage

When a protected species causes damage, it is the administration that has to pay for it. "In total there are 16 dead goats, but they will only pay me for 4, and I haven't charged them yet. The summer attacks are not counted in because there is no evidence that they were from a wolf," says the Moianès shepherd, who calculates that they will give him about €100 per goat, an amount which is totally insufficient. "The last goats were excellent. The €100 I would have got in milk in only one month. The compensation they give you is nothing. Besides, now I have a lot of headaches and problems feeding," he laments.

And the fact is that when a predator attacks a herd, it also harms those that have survived, which suffer stress. "Performance made a spectacular drop; so much, that we could not continue," recalls Florenci Serra, whose herd in the Solsonès suffered wolf attacks between 2015 and 2020. What Serra regrets the most is that, for five years, he tried to seek measures to try to coexist with the predator, but no one picked up the gauntlet. "We never said no to the wolf. The administrations should have taken advantage of the fact that we were a group of shepherds willing to seek solutions. Just as they do monitoring studies, we asked for studies of methods to minimise risks and damage. But nobody paid any attention to us, and in the end I had to give up sheep and switch to cows to be able to continue," he regrets.

Experts such as the forestry technician specialised in wildlife, Pol Guardis, defend the importance of the wolf's return, above all because of its ecological function as a large predator. Guardis, however, stresses that a whole series of strategies and measures must be set up "so that everyone accepts their responsibilities: both the countryside – which will suffer directly – and from the urban areas, where people are pushing for this return". "But we all have to row in the same direction, because otherwise it will be to the detriment of the species, and they are the ones who are least to blame," he stresses.

70 bears in the Pyrenees since 2019

Since 2019, the European LoupO project has identified a minimum of 70 bears and 8 wolves in the Pyrenees. In the case of the former, there is a breeding population in Haute-Garonne, Ariège, Vall d'Aran and Pallars. On the other hand, only a few erratic males have been found in the Pre-Pyrenees and in the eastern Pyrenees. To identify them, more than 500 samples have been collected, such as hair, faeces and urine in the snow.