From fear to hope for shepherds and wolves
Location: Llamardal – Spain,
Story by: Sofía González Berdásco
Sofía González Berdasco is a farmer and wildwatching guide in Somiedo, Asturias (Spain). She grew up fearing the wolf while she had to shepherd her family’s sheep as a child. As she grew up, she started to understand the role of wolves in nature and, eventually, love them. She now feels in “no-man’s land” between both sides of the conflict for and against the wolf. For her, the solution requires empathy from everyone and will to yield in some points.
Asturias is one of the regions where two of the three large carnivores present in Spain, brown bear and wolf, never disappeared. While the acceptance of bears is not conflictive, coexistence with wolves has never been easy in this region due to, among other reasons, the specific livestock management system.
In my home region, a great work has been done towards coexistence with bears. People are proud of having them around and Somiedo has become one of the main ecotourism destinations for bear watching in their natural environment. The wolf, however, does not have the same reputation.
I grew up helping my parents with our farm. We are vaqueiros de alzada, a group of livestock keepers that move from summer to winter pastures. My mother used to tell us stories similar to the Little red riding hood and all those where the wolf is the villain, except that they were not just tales. I grew up fearing the wolf and this fear was rooted very deeply in my memories.
Some years later, I started to learn about the species, to understand that they need to attack other species to feed their cubs, which are as important for them as my lambs and kids (NOTE: baby goats) for me. I accepted it, but it was still difficult for me not to be scared and to appreciate them. I once decided to go to the mountains and sleep there, close to a wolf territory, to face this fear. I saw them and heard them, I was astonished! I felt I had walked the last step, the most difficult one. Eventually I ended up, not only understanding them, but being fascinated by this species.
This fascination led me to work now also as a wildlife tourist guide and start my own company, Somiedo Experience. Working with tourists also gives me the point of view of people who are not in direct contact with rural life and farming so during our sightings I also show them the importance of local farming and our way of living. We organise bivouacs and from time to time, we get to hear the wolves howling! It is an amazing experience that we combine with visiting teitos, the traditional buildings roofed with branches used by shepherds.
By bringing tourists to our village, I think my neighbours also feel that their landscape and architectural heritage are interesting and therefore they also appreciate somehow the value of such species as large carnivores.
Tourism is an activity that 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.
However, I often feel as if I were “in no-man’s land”, between both sides of this conflict for and against the wolf. Urban people sometimes think the situation for the wolf would be better without farmers whereas shepherds and livestock breeders may think the situation for their animals and their business would be easier without the wolf.
I understand both. For me, everybody is important, and we all need to coexist. We need to talk and debate. Some must not lose everything and others win everything.
For me, to see farmers proud of having wolves in this region would be amazing. But they can’t do that alone. We need help from the rest of the society.