Volunteer with wolves in Portugal

The wolves can smell you. They know you’re not one of the regular staff at the sanctuary, and so they stay away whilst you work. You’re in their enclosure, clearing vegetation with a swishing scythe. You might be watched, but you won’t be approached.
But when they howl, the whole world knows. “Can you really hear them howl?” we ask Anne, from our specialist volunteering operator, Oyster Worldwide. She nods eagerly. “Yes!” It’s one of the perks of volunteering with wolves – but the other, of course, is actually seeing them.
Imagine feeling the hairs all a-tingle on your arms, being kept awake by a howling wolf.
You won’t forget seeing your first wolf. Maybe it will be their sun-flecked ears, as they sit with their head just peeking out of the grass. Maybe it will be their skinny hindquarters as they skulk off into the trees. And definitely, your best chance of seeing one in their natural habitat is by volunteering at a sanctuary.

Portuguese wolves

You could live your whole life in Portugal and never cross paths with a wolf. It’s a shame, because they’re devastatingly handsome. A subspecies of the grey wolf, the Iberian wolf is found in northern Portugal and north-west Spain. It has light patches on its muzzle, and dark daubed down the front of its legs and its tail. Its Latin name is Canis lupis signatus – in which ‘signatus’ means marked.
Iberian wolves have been, for want of a better word, hounded out of their territories by humans. Not with pitchforks, but through the destruction of their forests. There are only 300 wolves left in Portugal, cramped up in the north of the country, their range reduced by two thirds since the turn of the 20th century. “The space where they live naturally backs onto farmland. They’re competing for food. They’re going onto farmer’s land and the farmers are shooting them,” Anne explains.

Pack protection

Wolves have been protected in Portugal since 1988 and are considered endangered. This hasn’t stopped farmers shooting them illegally, and using wire traps and poison to protect their herds. Just across the border in Spain, a set number of wolves can be killed a year. This is something the wolf sanctuary, and now Life WolFlux – the European Commission’s conservation project – have tried to combat by encouraging farmers to employ traditional Portuguese guard dogs instead of resorting to violence.

The wolf might be legally protected in Portugal, but that hasn’t stopped the ravaging of its natural habitats. Thanks to humanity’s inroads, farmland fences and wiped-out forests, wolf populations are isolated from each other – in Portugal, the Douro River splits the population in two. Rewilding Portugal and Life WolFlux are working to improve conditions for wolves in the wild by increasing the availability of wild prey in the Douro Valley, and reducing poaching. There is also talk of creating corridors across countries, so that scattered packs can meet and mix.

Wolf sanctuaries

Just outside Lisbon is a wolf sanctuary set in miles upon miles of rolling national park. The animals here have come from captivity, or arrived after injury. “The sanctuary is dedicated to trying to preserve the species – they are taken from zoos or have been injured by farmers,” says Anne. Most importantly, the ten wolves in the sanctuary are poster children, raising awareness for the plight of their wild brethren.
Sadly, the wolves housed in the sanctuary cannot be released into the wild. Instead they live as close to the wild as a 17 hectare sanctuary can allow.
And this is where volunteers come in handy. That wolfish sense of smell? It means that the wolf knows the scent of the regular sanctuary workers. “If a member of staff did the feeding the wolves would come up to them, thereby displaying unnatural behaviours,” Anne explains. Having a roster of volunteers on hand to help with feeding means that wolves don’t expect to be fed, and don’t learn to rely on humans. And coming here helps raise awareness for wild wolves who, despite their howls of protest, cannot speak for themselves.
They’re shy, they’re elusive. You’re not going to get a selfie with them.

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What does this trip entail?

This is no ‘voluntourism’ scheme – it’s two or four full and vital weeks of helping the sanctuary care for endangered Iberian wolves, which remain in Portugal in tiny numbers despite severe habitat loss. You get to see wolves every day – something you’d never be able to do in the wild.

In 14 days, or even four weeks, of volunteering at a wolf sanctuary you’ll work full time, with weekends off to visit the surrounding area. The work is physical, and involves a lot of woodland clearing. Historically, non-native eucalyptus has been planted in the sanctuary surrounds, being a quick growing tree that’s good for timber production. But it also burns very easily – a huge fire risk. A big part of the volunteering role is clearing non-native species like the eucalyptus and replacing them with native plants. “The sanctuary works very closely with the national park,” Anne says. If you fancy wielding a scythe, possibly watched by a wolf hidden in the trees, then this is the project for you.

Of course, you will see wolves, too – usually during feeding times. “They’re shy, they’re elusive. You’re not going to get a selfie with them,” Anne says. But you will see them if you come bearing food. Feeding is also a good time to monitor the wolves, so volunteers do this too, to check they are healthy, and that they are interacting well with each other in their makeshift ‘pack’.

Where do I stay?

You’ll stay on site with other volunteers – there are a maximum of eight helpers at any one time. You stay, rather romantically, in a log cabin in the woods, surrounded by national park, “on the top of the hill, so you get really lovely views,” Anne notes. This is mixed self-catering accommodation, for people aged 18 or over. The full-time staff live off-site, a ten minute drive away. For some people full forest immersion is a dream come true – with the knowledge that Lisbon is just down the road.

What do I do in my free time?

“It would be a shame to fly into Lisbon and not see the city,” Anne says, which is why before you head to the cabin, you can enjoy a weekend in the city in eco-friendly accommodation. And on your weekends off, you could head to the beach for surfing or diving excursions, go back to Lisbon or visit nearby Sintra for a city break, or explore the countryside – via wine tastings or hiking, as you prefer.

When is the best time to go?

The wolf sanctuary closes to volunteers in December and January, when the wolves are less active. Aside from that, you can visit any time. Anne points out that quieter periods might not suit everyone “The fringe months are March and November, and there are fewer volunteers coming then. I would absolutely love to be living in a wolf sanctuary on my own, but it might not be for everyone.” In the summer months, depending on risk your duties could include assisting the local services with fire watch – this means climbing to a watch tower to keep an eye on the forest in the night. Don’t worry, the howls of wolves will keep you awake.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Sabine Girard/Oyster Worldwide] [Portuguese wolves: Goncalo Costa/Oyster Worldwide] [Wolf sanctuary: Sabine Girard/Oyster Worldwide] [Volunteers at santuary: Sabine Girard/Oyster Worldwide]