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Ancient horse breed released into western Spain

Western Spain is again home to wild horses after 2000 years, with a recent assessment showing 47 reintroduced Retuertas horses are in great condition and have adapted well to their new environment.

The conclusion by Juan José Negro, director of the Doñana Biological Station and his colleagues, is good news for a program that aims to establish two populations of the rare and ancient breed.

The most recent release occurred on October 7, when 23 Retuertas horses from the Doñana biological station in southern Spain were released in the Campanarios de Azaba biological reserve in western Spain.

The release was possible thanks to Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre, land owner of the reserve, with support from Rewilding Europe.

“Our objective is to have two herds at two different locations – this new one in Campanarios as  complementary to the one in Doñana, to ensure a more effective survival of this breed, the most ancient in Iberia,” explains Carlos Sanchez, director of the Foundation of Nature and Man that manages the site.

Staffan Widstrand, from Rewilding Europe, a group that promotes re-establishing wildlife across Europe, points out the importance of the Retuertas horses for the continued rewilding of the area.

The October release was the second herd released in the reserve. In July 2012, 24 Retuertas horses were freed there.

The aim was to strengthen the nucleus of retuertas that already exist in Campanarios of Azaba, guaranteeing the survival of the breed in Doñana National Park, in case there was a disease outbreak or similar tragedy.

In addition, it will allow the process of incorporation of large herbivores in this reserve in the Salamanca district.

As with the first herd, the second group in Campanarios will be treated as completely wild living animals, and live in natural, social groups, grazing the reserve which is currently 500 hectares.

The Campanarios de Azaba biological reserve, in the Espeja municipality, consists of typical Dehesa savannah woodland with different oak habitats (Quercus ilex, Quercus pyrenaica) and has been declared one of the most biodiverse areas in Europe.

Rewilding Europe intends to contribute to the increase of and the protection of the biodiversity in Western Iberia by reintroducing natural grazing as a key ecological process.

In order to reach its goals in Western Iberia, the initiative has started to work in two pilot areas: Campanarios de Azaba reserve, in Spain, and Faia Brava reserve, in Portugal.
The reintroduction of wild living herbivores will not only support the recovery of natural spaces and increase biodiversity; it will also provide new opportunities for local communities, landowners and stakeholders in the area.

The breed got its name from the so-called Retuertas, flooded areas inside the Doñana National Park, where the sands slowly drain water towards the salt marsh. They work as natural drinking places for the animals.

There is only a small number of Retuerta horses with ancestral genes left: in total around 150 animals in 2012.

The Retuertas breed was originally used for agriculture work, but other breeds that are more suitable for these purposes replaced them. This in turn led to near extinction of the Retuertas horse, with only half a dozen animals left in the 1980s.

After rigorous comparative genetic analysis with other ancient races like Asturcón, Losino and Potoca, a study published in 2006 discovered that Retuertas were one of the oldest horse breeds in Europe.

Natural grazing by wild herbivores, such as wild horses, wild cattle, bison and many other species, disappeared from large parts of Europe when humans occupied these areas. Wild horses and cattle were domesticated and used for agriculture.

With large-scale land abandonment now happening in many parts of Europe, livestock is also disappearing, leading to the simplification of ecosystems and reducing the pastoral systems that compose the natural Mediterranean mosaic landscapes.

Spain is considered especially suitable for rewilding programs, as it retains high biodiversity with low human population density.

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