Marauding wolves just a howl from Madrid

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The Independent Online

Francisco Esteban, a shepherd, gestures across the harsh Castillian plain to the distant sierra not far from Madrid. "There used to be hamlets all around here, with market days every Thursday. But now there's no one. It's deserted, except for packs of wolves who come down at night to savage my sheep."

Mr Esteban, 52, has 2,500 sheep cropping the thin pasture of a village near Guadalajara, on the outskirts of the Madrid region. Wolves have raided his flock five times and killed 500 sheep in recent months, 200 in one attack. Animals whose throats were not ripped out suffered broken legs, were crushed to death in the panic or fled, never to return. "I've had to buy guard dogs and fence my sheep in at night. I can't afford these losses," he says, frowning in the winter sunshine.

For decades, canis lupus was confined to Spain's north-western highlands, all but exterminated by farmers who laid traps and poison. But once they were declared an endangered species, the surviving wolves flourished. They crossed the Duero river in 1990 and, in a dramatic reconquest of old haunts, headed for Spain's central plains. Their advance has been hastened by the resurgence of their natural prey – wild boar and deer, also protected – and the depopulation of the countryside. As they swept south they struck foals, calves of fighting bulls, and especially sheep, inflicting huge losses on farmers.

Numbers have grown to an estimated 2,000, and wolves were spotted around Guadalajara last year for the first time since 1965. "I'm tempted to pick up a shotgun, but the wolf is protected and I'd be jailed or fined. We farmers are the endangered species," says Juan Manuel Garcia, 40, whose 450 sheep were raided one evening last November after they had been brought into the fold. "Wolves jumped the fence and killed 54. Some were bitten, but most suffocated in the crush. It was a massacre .

"Last summer wolves attacked in open country and savaged half a dozen; 38 ran into the wild. This has never happened before."

The shepherd has bought two mastiff pups, which gambol at his feet looking distinctly unthreatening, and says regional authorities have paid for a barbed-wire fence for his fold. "But we haven't received compensation for the loss of our sheep."

Wolves are intelligent and swift, reclusive by day and capable of covering 60 miles in a single nocturnal raid. Desperate to stop farmers taking counter-measures, regional authorities approved an emergency compensation package last month. But money isn't enough for Francisco Cuestas, 63 – like the others the son and grandson of shepherds, who lost 180 sheep last August.

"What would you do if a wolf came into your fold and killed more than 100 sheep? This is my livelihood and I'm telling you, if I see a wolf I'd shoot it dead," he asserts.

"The authorities take us for fools, but we're not, we're slaves. Sheepfarming is dying, and this land is too poor for cultivation. Our children want to live in the city, there's nothing for them here. We're heading for extinction already without fending off wolves."

Stunned by his summer loss, Mr Cuestas spent 48 nights in his van guarding his flock in open scrubland, hoping to spot lupine predators, without success: "I didn't even see their ears."