Between 2007 and 2009, I was working at a winery in Aragon, a vast, rugged, sparsely populated region of northeast Spain.
During my lunch break, I would head up to the mountain hermitage that overlooked the vineyards. Sitting on a rock in the sunshine, among wild herbs and gnarled oak trees, I’d eat my sandwich as I gazed at the panoramic view. I was perched on the edge of the Sistema Ibérico, the Iberian Highlands, a 500km-long series of mountain ranges, dry hills and river gorges. Behind me, to the south, lay the Meseta, the 600m-high plateau that stretches across Castille to cover most of central Spain. Below me, to the north, were the ochre-colored lowlands of the Ebro River Basin. In the foreground was the vineyard patchwork of the Cariñena wine region, and somewhere hidden in the distance was Zaragoza, the provincial capital named after Caesar Augustus. On clear winter days, when the sky was a lovely forget-me-not blue, I could see white smudges on the northern horizon. Unbelievable as it may seem, those were the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees, some 200km away.
I lived beyond the mountain hermitage, where, after high fields of wheat, the road dropped down through eroded hillsides to a little medieval town called Daroca. Tucked into the folds of a dry river valley, it was topped by a crumbling castle and surrounded by stout city walls. Everything was built in earthy tones: the brick houses and adobe walls, the roof tiles and church towers.
In the summer, I would watch huge flocks of swallows swooping in the sky above the town, and in the winter, a light dusting of snow would sometimes cover the surrounding hills.
Driving out of the lower gate, vegetable gardens lined a shallow sandy river and small vineyards dotted lower slopes. In the hills, I’d go walking along dusty tracks past roaming sheep. The almond orchards were especially beautiful in late February, when they bloomed pink and white.
Everywhere else, the hills were covered by wild vegetation adapted to the region’s semi-arid continental climate. There were the dry woodlands with stunted oaks and ancient junipers, the sparse grasslands that filled with wildflowers in the spring, and the dense dark green stands of pine. This was the country of wild boar and deer. It was also home to a diverse array of birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects.
At weekends, I loved exploring the Iberian Highlands with its farming country, empty villages and wild landscapes. In the summer, the shallow, salty Gallocanta Lagoon was surrounded by golden fields of wheat and sunflowers. From December to February, it became home for 10,000 Common Cranes, huddling together before flying back up to the Baltic in the early spring.
In the dry, rusty-red hills to the east were ancient settlements built of mud, brick, and stone. There was tiny Albarracín on a steep defensive ridge. Provincial Teruel was known for its Mudéjar towers decorated in colorful, geometric Moorish tiles.
Further towards the coast, just before dropping down to Valencia and the Mediterranean Sea, Gúdar-Javalambre was a wild region of pale limestone hills, craggy rock faces and whitewashed villages.
On other day trips, I would head south to the Alto Tajo Nature Reserve, with its pine-covered mountains, jagged cliffs and Tagus River gorges. In the northwest, towards the Rioja wine region, the Iberian Highlands would offer Moncayo and Demanda, massive rounded mountains covered in winter snow.
Undeniably, the best part of my job at the winery was the outdoor lifestyle. And I felt especially lucky to be exploring a beautiful part of Spain that was so off the beaten track.
After a couple of years in the region, I moved on. And I took great memories of the Iberian Highlands with me.
The story doesn’t end there though.
Fast-forward to October 2022, and Rewilding Europe, the nature conservation organization, is launching its first project in Spain. Exciting for me, it just happens to be in the southern part of the Sistema Ibérico, the Iberian Highlands that I got to know so well when I was living there.
The project covers 850,000 hectares, approximately the size of Yellowstone National Park. Half of this area is already protected for wildlife. This includes two large natural parks (Alto Tajo and Serranía de Cuenca), in addition to one nature reserve, two micro-reserves, one Ramsar site for birdlife, nine natural monuments and eleven natural river reserves.
Outside the officially-protected areas, land abandonment and depopulation since the 1960s have allowed nature to do its own form of rewilding. There’s plenty of room for wildlife. It’s one of Europe’s least populated areas, part of the so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with a density of less than 2 people per square kilometer. And, as farmland has reverted to native vegetation, populations of wild animals, from reptiles and amphibians to deer, wild boar and griffon vultures, have had a chance to boom. However, human pressure on natural ecosystems still exists, in the form of land degradation, deforestation and hunting. Key top predators, such as the Brown bear, Iberian lynx and Iberian wolf, remain absent.
The Iberian Highlands rewilding project has several aims, enhancing the work already done by nature conservation initiatives in the area.
The first is the restoration of key animal species, including the Iberian lynx at the top of the food chain and the Cinereous vulture as a scavenger. Iberian ibex (a wild goat) and kulan (a semi-wild equine) are being reintroduced for sustainable grazing, as a sort of ecosystem management tool. This helps open up thickly forested areas and encourages patches of steppe grassland to grow. In a complex mosaic landscape, biodiversity increases and the ecosystem becomes more resilient.
Another objective is protecting old-growth forests by compensating owners for the loss in timber revenues through direct payments, carbon credits and sponsorship. Also helping maintain a healthy ecosystem, dam removal has been beneficial for natural hydrological processes. Fish ladders have allowed migratory fish to return.
As an integrated part of the Iberian Highlands project, there’s also a focus on benefiting humans. For the local population, the idea is to stimulate nature tourism in order to create jobs and revive the rural economy. Not only is this one way to stem the continued abandonment of the villages, but it also engages communities in protecting nature.
The Iberian Highlands already draw people in search of the great outdoors, but it’s hoped that rewilding, in conjunction with a greater promotion of natural attractions, can help boost this. Within a couple of hours’ drive are the cities of Madrid, Valencia and Zaragoza, with plenty of people looking for a natural break.
As Pablo Schapira, Project Director of Iberian Highlands, describes “Rewilding, in combination with other strategies, can make a difference by offering new opportunities that help people to live from the local resources. These resources include a rich and ancient culture, expanses of native pine, juniper and oak forests, impressive cliffs and rocky areas, open arid areas, a diverse guild of wild herbivores, and the source of major rivers, including the Tagus which stretches for over 50km.”
The Iberian Highlands project is overseen by Rewilding Europe and managed locally by Rewilding Spain, alongside the conservation partners Terra Naturalis and Asociación Micorriza. With funding already gained to kick-start the project, a three-year strategy is in place. Further funding will be required in due course. Rewilding and ecosystem restoration take time, at least twenty years. And, the commitment is long-term in order to create a truly resilient landscape.
Frans Schepers, Executive Director of Rewilding Europe, concludes ‘’Spain has huge potential for rewilding. I hope Iberian Highlands will become an inspiring example for other organisations, municipalities and landowners in Spain to follow its approach to demonstrate the benefits that it can bring to both nature and people”.
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