Iberian wolves changed diet to include wild ponies, say Spanish researchers

While carrion was the primary food source for wolves in the 1970s, from 2004 onwards their diet underwent drastic changes throughout all of Galicia. Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
While carrion was the primary food source for wolves in the 1970s, from 2004 onwards their diet underwent drastic changes throughout all of Galicia. Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Iberian wolves were forced to change their diet to wild ponies, deer and wild boars following the rise of mad cow disease, according to researchers.

The European crisis around mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was a turning point for the diet of the Iberian, or Galician wolf, which until the year 2000 had primarily fed on the carcases of domestic animals.

A new study shows that, after European health regulations made it illegal to abandon dead livestock, wolves started to consume more wild boars, roe deer and wild ponies. They also began to attack more cattle ranches when faced with food shortages in certain areas.

With the rise of mad cow disease in Europe, the EU had to enforce a number of laws in the year 2000 to prevent the disease from spreading. Among other things, it became illegal to abandon the carcases of ruminants that had died on farms. Up until then, this carrion had been an important food source for wolves.

From then on, having been adopted by every European country, this measure began to affect a number of scavenger species, especially the vultures that lived on the Iberian Peninsula. This latest research confirms its effect on the Iberian wolf (Canis lupus signatus).

A team of researchers analysed the dietary evolution of  the wolves by examining two time periods: before the European law was established (from the 1970s up until 2000) and afterwards (from 2003 to 2008).

Besides this legislation, a combination of other changes also affected the wolves, such as reductions in the quantity of livestock, rural depopulation and the reforestation of agricultural land, which boosted the number of wild ungulates.

The study, published in Environmental Management, indicates two very different dietary patterns for the two time periods. While carrion was the primary food source for wolves in the 1970s, from 2004 on, around the time that legislation was passed to dispose of pig and bird carcases, their diet underwent drastic changes throughout all of Galicia, which covers northwest Spain. The Galician wolf now largely depends on roe deer and wild pony populations.

“We’ve observed a decline in carrion consumption among wolves, especially in the areas studied in western Galicia, with a reduction of between 57% and 67%, dependent on the season, and a marked drop in the consumption of livestock solely in eastern Galicia (with a reduction of between 66% and 93%, dependent on the season),” Laura Lagos, a researcher from the University of Santiago de Compostela and co-author of the study told the Spanish science news service, SINC.

Between 2003 and 2008, the consumption of wild ungulates – roe deer and wild boars – and of wild ponies, known as Garrano horses, increased.

A wolf runs away with a pig's leg from a farm in Guitiriz, Galicia, in 2007. Photo: Felipe Bárcena
A wolf runs away with a pig’s leg from a farm in Guitiriz, Galicia, in 2007. Photo: Felipe Bárcena

Felipe Bárcena, another of the authors and a scientist at the same university, said: “An increasing number of roe deer and Galicia’s significant wild pony population both softened the blow when cattle carrion disappeared, allowing for a change in the wolf’s diet and strengthening its predatory niche.”

Although the roe deer seemed to be wolves’ favourite prey throughout the region, different wild animals have been targeted in the various areas of the autonomous community. In western Galicia, an area previously uninhabited by these wild ungulates, roe deer and wild boars have become an important food source.

This is in addition to the consumption of wild ponies, which “has grown by 96% since the 1970s, if we look at the period from April to November, and has increased five times over if we look at it from December to March”, according to Lagos, who emphasises that in this western part of Galicia wild ponies now constitute the wolf’s primary source of prey, just as the roe deer do in the mountains to the east.

But although sheep and goat stock are no longer as important to the wolf’s diet throughout Galicia, researchers stress that cattle consumption has increased – despite their numbers having reduced by 37%.

“There has been a rise in damage to cattle farming, perhaps due to new management methods rendering cattle more vulnerable to wolf attacks,” Bárcena suggests.

The scientists agree that this state of affairs makes it more difficult for wolves and human beings to coexist, and has a negative impact on the conservation of this predator. For this reason, certain environmental management measures have been proposed, to ensure that the populations of roe deer and wild ponies increase.

“Habitat restoration work will also be needed in order to provide the wolves with a diverse and plentiful source of wild prey, which is essential if this canine population is to survive natural and artificial changes to its habitat, and if conflicts with livestock are to be reduced,” the authors concluded.

According to Bárcena and Lagos, one further measure could also be taken: animal carcasses will not need to be removed.

“This should be a fairly flexible regulation, which allows farmers with large ranches in remote areas to leave ruminant carcases out in the countryside, and it seems more logical than disposing of them in rubbish tips. But this measure must first be properly assessed.”

Lagos & Bárcena. 2015.
EU Sanitary Regulation on Livestock Disposal: Implications for the Diet of Wolves.
Environmental Management 56 (4):890–902.
The abstract of the study can be read here

Report published in original form under the Creative Commons 3.0 Licence



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