Iberian Highlands


Juan Carlos Muñoz

Restoring ecosystems and revitalising nature-based local economies in Spain

The Iberian Highlands are the watershed of major rivers in Spain and host a wide variety of ecosystems including forest, grassland, and rocky canyons. Land abandonment due to rural-urban migration has led to economic stagnation but also provides opportunity to restore nature at a large scale. Reintroducing native fauna as well as removing dams and weirs will restore ecological processes and kickstart natural regeneration. Restored areas will provide new generations of people opportunities to return to the Iberian Highlands as entrepreneurs, developing nature-based businesses that will breathe new life into the local economy.

The Iberian Highlands

The 850,000 ha landscape lies in the interior of the Iberian Peninsula, occupying the southern part of the Iberian Chain – one of the major Spanish mountain ranges. Most of the area exceeds 1,100 meters above sea level and it defines the watersheds of many major rivers in Spain and Portugal. This vast landscape hosts a wide variety of habitats, dominated by pine, oak and juniper forests, with the presence of grassland steppe and agricultural areas, and rupicolous and riparian ecosystems in the canyons and banks of the Tagus River and other tributaries. The human population in the landscape is extremely low, with an average of 1.63 inhabitants per square kilometre. The area holds a wealth of biodiversity, representing a crossroads of climates and habitats from the Mediterranean, Euro-Siberian and Euro-Turkestanian regions.

Project context and opportunity

Starting in the 1950s, land abandonment marks the recent history of this landscape. Thousands of inhabitants of mountainous areas emigrated to nearby cities, resulting in population reductions between 60% and 80% in many places. The reduction in livestock farming and therefore grazing has increased the risk of fires, and made way for unsustainable hunting practices. Moreover, economic stagnation has encouraged the development of new destructive activities such as fracking and mining. However, the large-scale rural depopulation and land abandonment also provide unprecedented opportunities for restoring nature at scale and breathing new life into the local economy.

Conservation efforts over the last two decades have led to increased environmental protections in the area. Currently, over half of the landscape is comprised of protected areas. The project area still retains high biodiversity, for example around 20% of the total Iberian flora species can be found there and rocky slopes host thriving populations of raptors such as golden eagle.

The area also has huge socioeconomic potential, with its position between the major urban centres of Madrid, Valencia and Zaragoza and the current interest in the resettling of rural areas by remote workers.

What the project will do

The project aims to restore a multi-functional landscape including a network of core areas that benefit nature, climate resilience and people. To accomplish this, the project will collaborate and engage with regional administrations and communities to identify and establish alternative and viable land management practices together that support the integrity of ecosystems and natural resources across the landscape. It will also actively restore food chains through targeted actions such as reintroductions and provide the framework for ecosystems to regenerate naturally.

To achieve its aims, the following actions will be taken:

  • Set up demonstration sites and actions with local partners, and the development of associated financial mechanisms.
  • Reintroduce large herbivores, such as horses, tauros and potentially kulan (a type of wild ass), scavangers such as the cinereous vulture, and the Iberian lynx.
  • Create a network of protected old-growth forests through agreements, purchasing rights, or other finance mechanisms.
  • Remove dams and weirs to restore hydrological processes.
  • Improve the socio-economic development of the landscape through nature-based solutions.
  • Build close collaborations and partnerships with stakeholders and local communities to ensure full engagement while working jointly on a shared mission.

Project Partners

Rewilding Europe
Rewilding Spain
Terra Naturalis
Asociación Micorriza
University of Alcalá – Forest Ecology and Restoration Group (FIRE)

Quick Facts

Project lead:

Rewilding Europe / Rewilding Spain

Project location:

Castilla la Mancha and Aragón, Spain



Landscape size:

850,000 ha

Key habitats:

Canyons, rivers, forests, steppe

Focal species:

Cinereous vulture, Iberian lynx, Iberian ibex, bearded vulture, Przewalski's horse, tauros

Project Gallery

Latest updates from Iberian Highlands

Cinereous vulture comeback in the Iberian Highlands

The cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) is the largest scavenger bird inhabiting Spain. Its imposing silhouette was common in the Iberian…

Rewilding for nature and people: World Rewilding Day 2024

On World Rewilding Day we are showcasing ELSP-supported projects that are led by Rewilding Europe and its partners. Rewilding Europe…

Western Europe’s first free-roaming herd of Przewalski’s horses to enhance Iberian Highland restoration

A herd of 10 Przewalski’s horses – the last truly wild horse – has been released in the Iberian Highlands…