In Search of Wolves

A series of writing about a long realised dream to go and live… where the wolves are.

The Virgin Mary carved into the Granite rock of the Serra de Estrela, where she watches over the shepherds of these mountains.
  1. Enchanted by a Goddess

Soon after the highest point on the road from Seia to Covilha, where the road starts its long steep decent down the east side of the Serra de Estrela mountains, I see her. The Serra de Estrela natural park is home to Portugal’s highest peak at 1993m. The park takes up 1% of the national land mass according to Jacinto Diamantino who I’d spoken to in the park office in Seia, seeking information about wolves. 

The road is the sort motor bikers love, smooth deep curves through steep rocky ravines, with the ubiquitous pull-off to take in the views: some down into the deep valleys, others out onto the vastness of Spain’s central meseta – the great high plain of Castilla la Mancha, stretching off as far as the eye can see.

As I round another bend, a mountain rescue team is coming down to the road, carrying someone on a stretcher. They look relaxed, it must be a practice. The whole team comprises of strapping young men, not a woman in sight. I round another bend and there, in another pull-off are all their official vehicles and behind them, in the rock face, a carving of a woman. The Virgin Mary perhaps. Instantly captivated, I pull in at the last moment. 

As I walk back to where she is in view, the mountain rescuers arrive at their vehicles and the debrief starts. Tourists like myself variously stop, get out of their cars, take a pictures and drive on. I do the same, but then, well, I can’t just drive on, this place has a certain magic that needs to be explored. 

I make my way down the stoney path to the stream below. The little valley is bounded by rocky outcrops, some of which form towers, like upended garlic breads, the slices slightly offset from each other, but not quite enough for them to topple. 

My feet welcome the cool clear water of the stream in the heat of the late spring sun. I look up at Mary, she looks down benevolently, as if she is beckoning me to come visit her. I’ve never particularly been into Christian shrines, but here it’s just her, as if a Goddess in her own right.  

Steep steps carved into the rock take me to the base of the shire, where offerings are scattered on a broad rock shelf. Red plastic candle pots long burn out, plastic flowers and rocks from the surrounding landscape, many of which have hair bands looped around them. I take the one out of my own hair and put it around an otherwise unadulterated rock. 

I try to say a prayer, but am unaccustomed and besides, my attention is drawn by the valley which curves up and away amongst the stacks of granite and cushion grasses that grow next to the tiny stream. This valley has a timeless sacred quality. 

The granite columns of the Covāo do Boi

I should have asked Mary for good fortune on this trip, my search for wolf country here in Portugal. There are a few wolves here in the Serra de Estrela, but only on the north side of the mountains. They comprise the mostly southerly extent of the Portuguese wolf population, which amounts to only 300 or so animals. There are no breeding populations in the park, because the wolves have retreated following their main food source, sheep. Jacinto said the distribution of wolves here is sparse, that I will have to go to the far northeast of Portugal to find healthy populations in Montezinho Natural Park. I ask Jacinto if it is possible to hear wolves, as I know that seeing them is difficult. 

“July and August are the best times for hearing them,” he says. “We go out to the place where we know they are and call them, and if they are there, they will often call back.” He shows me photos in a book on Iberian Wildlife, “here is my ex-colleague Fransisco calling the wolves” he says pointing at a photo of a bearded man with his hands cupped to his mouth,“ he has moved to Montezinho to be where the wolves are.” 

I ask Jacinto if is possible to tell the difference between a wolf track and dog tracks, I know from doing a week long wolf tracking program in Washington state a few years back, that they can be very difficult.

“Yes, it is possible” says Jacinto, “just think, a wolf is a hunter, and a dog is not.” 

“Ah, yes, their gait is different!” I say, remembering what I’d learnt. 

“Exactly, the wolf moves in a different way, with purpose, and this is how we tell them from a dog.”

Next I will head to visit Faia Brava nature reserve in the Vale de Coâ, a few hours north of here, in the heart of wine country. The Vale de Coâ is an area of archeological significance due to extensive rock art in the valley. It is also a region now under the management of the Rewilding Europe Network. One of the aims of the project is to create a corridor between the wolf populations south of the Douro river, including the Serra de Estrela, with those in the north. 

Apart from geographical isolation, the main reason why the wolf populations in the Serra de Estrela are tenuous is the lack of wild prey. That is to say species of deer, all of which have been hunted out in many parts of Portugal. This leaves wild boar, rabbits and… sheep, cows and goats. The loss of which to wolves creates many socio-economic issues and the historic despising of the wolf. 

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