Following the wolves’ trails on the back of horses
Location: Castro Laboreiro – Portugal,
Story by: Pedro Alarcão
16 years ago Pedro and Ana decided to move to Castro Laboreiro where many of the wolves in Portugal live. They never regretted this move – today they have an ecotourism company and offer visitors a unique experience by riding horses through the ‘land of the wolves’.
Initially they only wanted to film a documentary about wolves when they first came to this northern part of Portugal close to the Spanish border. Pedro worked as a photographer and Anabel as a journalist and they are also a couple with two daughters. While shooting the landscape, the wildlife and also the wolves they instantly fell in love with the place and decided to move there. They found a place in Castro Laboreiro close to the Peneda-Gerês National Park and build up an ecotourism business.
The region is well known for its high density of wolves and there is also a high number of attacks compared to other areas with wolves around. But Pedro and Anabel wanted to offer horseback rides as well as hiking and trekking tours. Since they are located directly in the mountains, they had to expect heavy weather and a lot of other challenges to own and protect livestock and especially horses. Some people told them that it is crazy to start a tourism business there because the chances for profit are so low.
“All species in nature are important, so we must not take any of them away from their own environment. So we must not take wolves away from nature.”
Today the family owns 18 horses of the Portuguese breeds Lusitano and Garrano. They offer horseback riding tours for small groups as day trips or even longer vacations over several days. In these trips they follow the tracks of the wolves and share their knowledge about the wildlife in the region and especially endangered species.
They also own 12 guardian dogs who make sure that the horses are safe. In the daytime they often release the horses but they always make sure to get them back to the stable before the night falls. Newborn horses will stay close to the house until they are big enough to be outside too. The project requires the help of all four family members and a strict protocol to ensure that the animals are save but it also shows that it is possible.
Tourism is an activity that an bring society closer to large carnivores and increase the real knowledge on the species among citizens. When the participants observe these animals in the wild, a bond is created and the awareness of the needs and the lifestyle of the animals is rising. For some, this experience is a dream come true. There are a lot of different activities that can be offered: photo tourism, talks, field trips with biological materials (skulls and skins), tracking courses or observation trips. Also a visit to a shepherd and other people who have historically shared the territory can be arranged to let the public know.
Livestock Guarding Dogs
Livestock guarding dogs defend the herd against attacks by wolves. They feel like part of the herd and settle down with the pet owner. The dogs live permanently outside and defend “their” herd against all intruders from the outside. Well-trained livestock protection dogs are no danger to walkers and hikers, but these should lead their dogs on a leash. To make this work, well trained herd protection dogs are required, which are adapted to the type of grazing by the livestock. This requires regular checks made by experienced people so that the dogs do not start to behave incorrectly.
SUCCESS AND OUTLOOK
The dogs create a kind of a protection circle. The wolf usually prefers to hunt in an easy way. And dogs don’t make it easy on wolves.
In 17 years, Pedro and Anabela never lost an animal to wolves. With their discipline and 12 guardian dogs they offer nearly no chance for an attack even for a pack which might be attracted to try it. There are still damages that occur at the farms nearby, but most of them result from a bad adaptation of measures and in some cases, the lack of conditions to implement them.
With their business they also show how to raise awareness for the wolf as an endangered species and let people experience the beauty of an intact and biodiverse landscape. Pedro hopes that soon people can understand the importance of this species for a healthy ecosystem.