Any inhabitant of the towns that criss-cross the serpentine profile of the Sierra de la Culebra can recite the scientific names of a bunch of porcini mushrooms, Amanitas, Níscalos, one after the other, as if reciting a Latin prayer. A quick question about mushrooms in the area can have as an answer a complete mycological treatise, because in the land that stretches at the foot of pines, oaks, Pyrenean oaks and chestnut trees in this Sierra of Zamora grow these valued gastronomic treasures that they can only be collected with a special license. Deer, roe deer, wild boar, foxes, otters, badgers, wild cats and one of the largest dens of Iberian wolves in Spain live side by side in the same ecosystem, the latter safe from hunters due to the latest protection measures approved by the central government. According to the Ministry of the Environment, the scene of the already greatest environmental disaster in history in Castilla y León was the fire that has burned down around 30,000 hectares since last Wednesday due to lightning, the natural jewel of Zamora and the most important economic miracle through the sale of wood, the management of hunting quotas and to support tourism for a fortnight in town halls in this deserted Spain.
In the early hours of Sunday and when the worst seemed to be yet to come, the first downpours from the west came like a blessing, helping to calm the fire’s fury and cool the earth. Another morning, as seaplanes and helicopters worked overhead, the 1,800 displaced residents were able to return to assess the material damage surrounding their villages. And the mayors began to take a preliminary tally while awaiting the final number of devastated surfaces and economic losses given by the Junta de Castilla y León. Lorenzo Jiménez, People’s Councilor of Villardeciervos, calculates that the devastating forest fire affected “at least half” of the 70,000 hectares of the Sierra de la Culebra. “We can hang up the closed liquidation sign because we were destroyed,” he laments. His community of 420 souls triples its population during the holidays thanks to returning families and tourists, especially people from Madrid, but also Basques, Catalans and British and Germans who reserve whole weeks and “wait to watch the wolves” or “the attend the deer roar show”. in September and October.
Wolverines surrounded by flames
The wolf has in these places its second largest presence in Spain, after the Cantabrian Mountains. Javier Talegón, from the Llobu association for the observation of this animal, has asked for time to analyze the impact of the fire on the species, but fears that of the 10 herds that have settled in the area, at least six have lost their territory. The main concern is the “breeding areas” where these animals go from groups of three or four to add four or five offspring: if they have been devastated there will be a displacement of individuals. Jorge Echegaray of the Association for the Conservation and Study of the Iberian Wolf (Ascel) claims there has been “brutal habitat destruction with consequences such as the deterioration of wild prey”. Many deer or wild boar have died or moved, which the Iberian wolf does not always do due to the territoriality of its conspecifics, making it difficult for other wolves to settle in their spaces. The density of these specimens, Echegaray fears, has been compromised because this misfortune happened during the breeding season, with pups barely two months old and who can’t always be transported by their mothers when the blaze erupts. That’s why the expert suspects that some didn’t survive, like thousands of amphibians or reptiles burned by fire. “The Sierra de la Culebra has never been assessed by the Board as a protected natural area or a sanctuary for the wolf. The model of mass exploitation of coniferous forests has created a powder keg,” rebukes the Zamorano, who believes that “in the long run it will be extremely serious because the habitat and prey dictate the density” of this predator.
“There is no doubt: this fire, which is already very serious, happened at the worst time of the year, a deadly time for the wolf,” stresses Lorenzo Jiménez in the same vein. “It’s a smarter animal than humans,” says the mayor, “and I hope I’m wrong, but mothers can give their lives to defend their litters.” Thanks mainly to the Iberian wolf, the Sierra de la Culebra is “known all over the world,” he says. “Great experts come here to study them, like American David Mech,” founder of the International Wolf Center and researcher at the University of Minnesota. Area mayors suspect many animals will now emerge charred in the embers of this regional game reserve, which meanders gently between counties Aliste, Sanabria, Carballeda and Portugal’s Tras os Montes. “We know there are deer because it was possible to photograph some returning to the place where they lived, but they found it completely destroyed by fire,” says Jiménez.
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Disaster strikes once again an area historically penalized by depopulation: Zamora has lost 40% of its census since 1950 and 30,000 people so far this century. The median age of its 170,000 residents is 51, eight years older than domestically, and Eurostat’s forecast for 2033 is terrifying: it will be the continent’s oldest province, averaging 62.7 years. By then, the black population in the Sierra de la Culebra will at least be adorned with green leaves. If it doesn’t burn again on what was burned in a landscape where even the flocks of sheep, guarantors of the cleanliness of the mountains, have collapsed.
A fatal blow to the economy
In this biosphere reserve, much of the town’s income comes from the sale of pine wood. Of the municipal budget of 550,000 euros in Villardeciervos, 100,000 corresponds to the annual income they receive from the timber auction, which is organized under the direction of the Association of Town Halls under the control of the regional government. Hunting quotas leave more than 200,000 euros in the regions that form the Sierra; and the pull of mycology and the sale of licenses to collect, 0.9 million directly. What is undeniable, however, is that the natural disaster is accompanied by an impact on the finances of the Zamoranos, who have an important economic injection in the rural tourism of this area together with livestock (with many cattle now lost in the mountains), agriculture or beekeeping .
Desperation robs even the ability to express the pain caused by the blackened landscape: Lidia Mateos, a worker at El Salao Hostel (Villardeciervos), cannot define what happened: “It’s terrible, a drama, there is none words.” The phone is interrupted by the damaged repeater towers as she denounces the “tremendous abandonment” she has felt and assimilates a “dirty present” that prevents even a glimpse into the future.
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