For the first time in two millennia, wild horses are once again galloping free in western Spain, countering what happened when the Romans moved there and domesticated the animals.
Four-dozen Retuerta horses have been released into the wild in western Spain over the past two years as part of a project by Rewilding Europe, a nonprofit group that seeks to turn the loss of rural farming life into an opportunity to boost biodiversity.
The endangered Retuerta is one of the oldest horse breeds in Europe and most closely resembles the race of ancient Iberian horses that populated this region before being domesticated.
Retuertas are nearly extinct, with only about 150 remaining in Doñana National Park in southern Spain. Living in a single cluster there, the entire species could be wiped out by any potential disease or calamity.
So wildlife experts arranged to have two batches of two-dozen Retuertas each brought to the Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, an unfenced area of western Spain that's believed to have once been native territory for the horses.
"Our idea is to just let them manage the ecosystem themselves. It's a wild horse. So it's in its DNA to roam free in the wild," said Diego Benito, a forestry engineer who lives and works at the reserve.
"Of course it is endangered — close to extinction — and we're conservationists," he added. "So if one of them gets ill, we could call the veterinarian. That's not the idea in the future — we'll treat them like wild horses. But for now they could use a little care."
A Broader Effort To 'Rewild' Europe
The horse project at Campanarios is one of a half-dozen efforts sponsored by Rewilding Europe across the continent. Others include the rewilding of European bison, red deer, beavers, brown bears and white-tailed eagles in Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia and elsewhere.
"In Europe, we live in a shadow land — in a dim and flattened relic of what there once was, and of what there could be again," said George Monbiot, an environmental columnist for The Guardian newspaper and author of the recent book, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding.
"We've lost most of the big predators in Europe," he added. "We've lost all the big herbivores — huge, elephant-sized rhinos used to live in Eastern Europe. We've lost a lot of our middle-sized herbivores. But this can be changed, and I think there's a very exciting future for rewilding here."
Spain is particularly suited to rewilding. The last Ice Age drove many native European species southward, and Spain retains high biodiversity with low human population density.
The Industrial Revolution drew rural human populations to big cities in northern Europe 300 years ago, yet Spain remained a relatively poor, agrarian society until the second half of the 20th century. Since then, the country has seen a massive migration to cities, particularly after the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, and now again during Europe's debt crisis.
The Landscape Changes
As Spaniards abandon rural life for the city, the land they've left behind is rewilding — returning to a landscape unseen for centuries.
The first thing to come back is the underbrush, which used to be grazed by livestock but now grows unchecked — and fuels increasingly dangerous wildfires growing in number and acreage in recent years.
"In the last 40 years, the bush has increased by more than 4 million hectares. That's nearly 10 percent of the country converted to bushland, because we lost the human population — they went to the city," said Benigno Varillas, president of a subsidiary group, Rewilding Spain. "To control the bush, you need big animals — herbivores — to trample and graze. People have taken their horses and cows away. So this reintroduction [of wild horses] is very important."
Varillas tilts his cowboy hat and looks out over empty, overgrown hills that his relatives once farmed. These cork oaks and brush are vulnerable to wildfires. So Varillas and his conservationist colleagues are fighting them — but not with water. They are rewilding the land with its natural protectors — animals.
"If the domesticated herbivores are not anymore, then we need to bring in those who were there before," said Staffan Widstrand, marketing director for Rewilding Europe. "We had domesticated horses here. Well, previously there were wild horses."
The Retuerta horses are one example of the type of rewilding that could take place amid an unprecedented global migration to cities. In 1900, 13 percent of humans lived in urban areas; the United Nations forecasts that number will hit 85 percent in the developed world by 2050. Conservationists are looking at what all of those people leave behind — animals, agriculture and ways of life — and how to preserve it.
Varillas and Widstrand recently helped guide a group of foreign wildlife experts around the Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve. Once the group reached the crest of a hill, a ranch hand unlatched a metal gate, and out ran two-dozen Retuerta horses, trampling scrubby oak brush as they galloped down the hill and out over the horizon.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For the first time in more than 2,000 years, packs of wild horses are once again galloping free in western Spain. Ancient wild horses once roamed the Iberian Peninsula, but when the Romans arrived they domesticated the animals.
Now, as Lauren Frayer reports, a breed closely related to those ancient horses is being re-wilded into the Spanish countryside.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This empty scrubland on the Spanish-Portuguese border used to be populated by farmers, plowing the land and grazing their livestock. It was only a generation ago that most Spaniards up and left for jobs in the city. Now the land they've left behind is reverting to a landscape unseen for perhaps thousands of years.
BENIGNO VARILLAS: In the last 40 years, the bush increased in four million hectares and now probably five. This is nearly 10 percent of the territory, became bush land because they lost the human population - they go to the city.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)
FRAYER: Benigno Varillas tilts his cowboy hat and looks out over empty, overgrown hills that his relatives once farmed. These cork oaks and brush are increasingly vulnerable to wildfires. And Varillas is fighting them but not with water. He's re-wilding the land with its natural protectors, animals.
VARILLAS: To control the bush, you need to eat the new plants, but also to be big animals. What do you say in English? To trample.
VARILLAS: And this is what Spain don't have no more in a lot of parts. The people take their cows or their horses out.
FRAYER: Conservationists say people aren't part of the natural landscape here but their livestock are.
STAFFAN WIDSTRAND: If the domesticated herbivores are not anymore, then we need to bring in those who were there before.
FRAYER: Staffan Widstrand is with a nonprofit group called Rewilding Europe, which sees the decline of farming as a chance to restore biodiversity.
WIDSTRAND: We had domestic horses here while previously there were wild horses.
FRAYER: Widstrand and Varillas converted this abandoned land into a nature reserve and brought in endangered native horses, millennia after the Romans first came here and domesticated the wild horses that once roamed free.
WIDSTRAND: Its one specific race called Retuertas, which is a very ancient horse breed, that the final little herd lives in the south of Spain from Andalusia. But previously, it most possibly was a horse breed - a horse, you know, sub-species that was all over the Iberian Peninsula. So it has ancient traits. And when they checked the DNA, it stands very, very close to the DNA of those ancient wild horses that were here once.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL GATE)
FRAYER: On a sunny cold afternoon, a ranch hand opens a gate
(SOUNDBITE OF GALLOPING HORSES)
FRAYER: And two dozen Retuerta horses gallop out into the wild. These horses are one example of the type of re-wilding that could take place amid an unprecedented global migration to cities. The U.N. forecasts that 85 percent of humans in the developed world will live in cities by the year 2050. Conservationists are looking at what all those people leave behind: animals, agriculture and ways of life and how to preserve it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
FRAYER: Forestry engineer Diego Benito, his wife and new baby, are the only full-time residents of the nature reserve where the Retuerta horses now roam. He says he considers his family pioneers, moving to the countryside while most longtime residents are abandoning it. But he says it's worth it for this view alone: wild horses galloping free.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE)
DIEGO BENITO: The last horses here maybe were thousands of years ago. It's kind of strange. But it also is quite beautiful to see all the whole landscape. And also, animals that you know will be wild. I'm sure that in 5 years or 10 years, this will be really a wild ark of nature.
(SOUNDBITE OF A HORSE)
FRAYER: A Noah's ark for the future.
For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.