This summer, bison will once again graze the grasslands of Atapuerca from which they disappeared thousands of years ago. Joining them will be aurochs –relatives of bulls driven extinct more than two centuries ago– and wild horses. The land on which all these animals will be living in Sierra de la Demanda (Burgos) will be open to the public and visitors will be able to watch live similar scenes to what the artists of the Altamira caves immortalized 15,000 years ago.
The project of Atapuerca is called Living Paleolithic and is one of the most recent examples of a practice known as rewilding. This conservation practice aims to return large tracts of land to the wild and grant new life to unused land holdings through the introduction of species that, despite having been absent from many parts of Europe for thousands of years, adapt smoothly to the new environments.
So far, the largest project of this type is Rewilding Europe. The initiative aims to restore one million hectares across Europe and release European bison, aurochs, lynx and many other species to repopulate them.
One of the five areas of the project lies in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula, in the meadows between Spain and Portugal. The appearance of the meadowland, with its scattered extensions of holm oaks, has been shaped in part by the species that inhabit it. At present, these species are sheep or pigs, but before the arrival of livestock there were also other species that were responsible for naturally cleaning the shrubs and partly pruning the trees in search of food, which resulted in a much healthier ecosystem. The objective of the Rewilding Europe project is to return some of those species to what was their natural ecosystem with minimal human intervention. The Spanish half of this part of the project is being implemented on a plot in Salamanca of more than 500 hectares where the objective is to introduce wild horses, aurochs and rabbits, which surprisingly are about to disappear from this ecosystem. The site is an old cattle farm no longer in active use. The consolidation of these species, particularly the rabbit, could even manage to attract new populations of Iberian lynx, project leaders have said.
Rewilding plays an environmental role in the panorama of the progressive abandonment of the countryside and livestock. “The wild herbivores help to prevent forest fires and maintain open areas, which are receptors for greater biodiversity,” explained Carlos Sanchez from the Nature and Man Foundation and one of the project leaders of rewilding in Salamanca. As in other areas of Spain, the rural areas are going through a hard time in which European subsidies are falling and it is increasingly difficult to maintain some livestock farms. This has meant the abandonment of lands devoted to livestock, their disuse and, along with this, an increased risk of fire and other problems. The promoters of rewilding sell the practice as a solution to both the abandonment of the countryside as well as to the creation of a new source of employment and benefits in the form of nature reserves that recreate the lost ecosystems of Europe.
Spain is becoming one of the European epicenters of this practice and there are several parallel projects of Rewilding Europe already underway. For example, in Asturias the reintroduction of European bison has already been tried with positive environmental results. “Six bison have converted an impenetrable thicket of 40 acres in Asturias into an area of pasture with hardly any scrub in seven months,” explained Fernando Moran, president of the Association for the Conservation of European Bison, to the newspaper El Mundo. The town of San Cebrian de Muda, high in the Palentina mountains, has also turned to this model of repopulation with European bison in an attempt to revitalize the economy through tourism. The town already plans to expand the site where the bison live to create a “Quaternary Park” with species such as aurochs, wild horses and wild asses.
The same idea of revitalization underlies the Atapuerca project, which will kick off in July. “We intend to coincide with the excavations at the Atapuerca site which will be the best time to open the new reserve to the public,” explains Eduardo Cerda, one of the promoters of Living Paleolithic. The project estimates that the bison and the other animals will attract some 20,000 new visitors, which may add to the more than 100,000 who already visit the Atapuerca site and the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos.
However, rewilding can also have drawbacks. The project in Burgos, for example, has been met with criticism from livestock associations in the area. Their concern is that the new animals, introduced onto a site in Salgüero de Juarros, bring diseases that can spread to cattle in the area due to the difficulty in controlling animals like aurochs. In fact, when the first group of aurochs came from the Netherlands in February this year, they jumped the fences and were roaming free in the area. Cerda says that they are already installing a new fence that will prevent the animals from leaving the site.