Spain's wolf-hunting ban sparks bitter debate in rural north

ERRIGOITI, Spain (Reuters) - A ban on wolf hunting in Spain’s rural north is ratcheting up tension between agriculture and conservation, pitting farmers who fear for their livelihood against environmentalists who applaud the move.

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Following a decision by the Environment Ministry last Thursday, protections for the Iberian wolf in the south of Spain will be extended north of the Douro river, where controlled hunting had still been allowed.

“We think it’s a great success,” said Nerea Larrabe, who manages the Basondo animal refuge in the northern Basque region, where hunting will soon be outlawed.

“It’s legislating to make sure an important species from our environment doesn’t disappear,” she told Reuters.

Since the 1960s Spain’s Iberian wolf population has rebounded from a few hundred to an estimated 1,500-2,000, with more than 90% of the population concentrated in the north.

As apex predators, wolves help regulate local fauna, but they also kill some 15,000 farm animals across the country each year, according to agricultural association COAG.

“There’s the conflict,” said Peru Lopez de Munain, a livestock vet in the Basque town of Errigoiti. “If wolves just killed deer, wild boar and rabbits it would be fine, there would be no problem.”

Farmers in some regions have adapted to living with wolves, building high-fenced pens to protect their flocks, but Lopez de Munain thinks the Basque Country’s extensive herding, where sheep roam freely over large areas, is incompatible with a resurgent wolf population.

Hunter and herder Isaac Ruiz Olazabal, whose land winds through the softly rolling hills of the Karrantza valley, agrees.

He recalls how a neighbouring farmer, alerted by vultures circling overhead, returned to his pasture to find two of his animals ripped to shreds.

“Wolves and livestock can’t be together,” he said. “They’re going to have to turn this story around, otherwise many of us farmers are going to disappear.”

Reporting by Vincent West; Writing by Nathan Allen; Editing by Alex Richardson