MADRID — No more solitary howls under the moonlight: the Iberian wolf has made a comeback. A healthy population now ranges across much of Spain’s rural northwest after decades as an endangered species surviving in remote mountain ranges.
But the success celebrated by conservationists had been muted by complaints from shepherds and livestock breeders until an old tradition reared its head. Breeders have turned to Mastiff guard dogs to keep their herds safe.
A ban in the 1980s that prohibited the hunting or poisoning of the wolves, coupled with the more recent abandonment of rural lands, led them back to territories their kind once called home.
Hundreds of sheep and cattle began falling prey to attacks from their new neighbors. Life-long sheep breeder Epifanio Garcia lost a half dozen sheep in one year when his flock suffered about 20 attacks from a predator neither he nor his father ever faced in the Castilian plains near Segovia.
Now 62-years-old, but still able to hold down a ewe with one hand while shaving its fleece with an electric razor in the other, Garcia recounted how he once got in a tug-of-war with a wolf as he tried to loosen the canine’s jaws from one of his sheep.
Those days came to an end thanks to his new best friend — a Mastiff. “The wolves smell the dog and don’t dare come close,” he said. “I haven’t seen them back here since.”
Garcia’s grandfather may have been part of the last generation to keep Mastiff guard dogs in these parts. The breed’s popularity in Spain fell as the wolf population disappeared. Wolves were the last natural predators to threaten livestock on a wide scale across much of the Spanish peninsula.
Some 500 of the surviving wolves found refuge further north in the Cantabrian Mountains, where livestock breeders, like Ovideo Beneitez, lived with the wolf threat for all their lives. That is why Beneitez and many of his neighbors also breed Mastiffs.
“It's a tradition, a way of life,” he said. “We have a natural protection that allows us to make a living on these lands even though the wolf is here.”
An initiative by the conservation group Life COEX is reintroducing breeders like Garcia to the benefits of Mastiff guard dogs with the goal of improving the coexistence of large carnivores and agriculture in southern Europe.
Beneitez supplied the Life COEX program with more than 100 Mastiff dogs during an initial four-year campaign that ended in 2008. Spanish project coordinator Juan Carlos Blanco said breeders were skeptical to begin with, but the success stories of the project have won over many of the incredulous and helped spur regional projects that continue the initiative.
“We expect the use of Mastiffs in rural areas to become infectious,” Blanco said. “Guardian dogs are a natural, simpler, effective solution. One that comes to us from the past and is recovering the Mastiff breed here in Spain.”
The resurgence of the wolves, with a population of about 2,000 now, has Garcia already thinking about the next generation of Mastiffs. “I'm very happy with her, I'd never get rid of her, and now I want her to have puppies to pass on her lineage,” he said, confiding that neighboring breeders are already putting dibs on the first born.
Beneitez draws personal satisfaction out of seeing the Mastiffs return to pastures far beyond his valley. He demonstrated how modern technology can protect his herd behind a fence, but it can’t allow his cattle to roam the rich green mountains of the Cantabrian range to feed naturally.
He’s so confident of his Mastiff dogs that he only checks in on his cattle every other day — mostly to feed his Mastiffs. The dedication of Beneitez and others like him to breeding and raising the Mastiff in this remote region of Spain has kept a natural resource alive for the future.
The same story resounds in Portugal, France and Italy where the conversation program similarly helped breeders re-discover how to co-exist with wolves thanks to a little help from a long-lost friend.
“When I send my dogs to other breeders, I’m sending a part of my culture, part of my tradition,” Beneitez said. "I’m making them participants in what I inherited from my ancestors.”
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