Features | Article transhumance




It is already a couple of days marching immersed in a dust cloud through the never ending plain of the Spanish region called Castille La Mancha. With temperatures well above thirty degrees Celsius, and hardly a tree to spread a slim line of shade in sight, it becomes apparent the hard shifts of this group of transhumant shepherds who, twice a year, cross the four hundred kilometers that separate the winter pastures in Andalusia from the summer pastures in the Albarracín Mountains.


Following one of so many ten hour a day marches, Enrique, who is in charge of this year's trip following the retirement of his father, and during the unfolding of one of our conversations, tells me with a wide smile in his face: “-You know that there is a chapter dedicated to the transhumance in the book of Don Quixote de la Mancha?-”. To which I responded with curiosity since I could only remember vaguely a battle that the protagonist had with a group of sheep and never related that to any transhumance matters.


This is how Miguel de Cervantes describes the initial situation before Don Quixote charges against a group of sheep killing a few of them and getting knocked down by the well aimed stones and almonds the shepherds threw at him with their slings:


"Don Quixote turned to look and found that it was true, and rejoicing exceedingly, he concluded that they were two armies about to engage and encounter in the midst of that broad plain (...) Now the cloud of dust he had seen was raised by two great droves of sheep coming along the same road in opposite directions, which, because of the dust, did not become visible until they drew near, but Don Quixote asserted so positively that they were armies that Sancho was led to believe it and say, "Well, and what are we to do, señor?”"


But transhumance, which means no more than the movement of domestic livestock from one pasture to another, backs in time much more than the seventeenth century Spanish literature masterpiece.


Following the last glaciation, the domestication of some of the large herbivores forced mankind to follow the natural migration routes created by the wild animals to seek for fresh pastures. During thousands of years, communities moved along the different pasture regions around the planet creating permanent or temporary settlements alongside these routes, exchanging, as well, all kind of goods and knowledge.


In Spain, the King Alphonso the Wise created The Royal Society of livestock owners of the Mesta in 1273. The Mesta became one of the strongest lobbies in Medieval Europe and regulated the paths and administrated the taxes paid for the passing of the animals through different regions. This responded to the the fact that Merina wool, one of the finest wools that exist, was very appreciated and expensive at the time, being also the only product that brought regular foreign income to the Castillean Kingdom at the time.


Spain was crossed by different tracks and paths created for the livestock migrations. The most important ones, called Cañadas Reales, had the width of roughly 75m, followed by Cordeles that had a width of 37m and at last, 20m was the width of the Veredas. Among other endless small paths and bits and pieces that conformed a web of tracks of about 125,000 Km, which is ten times more than the train rails that cover the Spanish territory.


Such was the strength of the Mesta in the XVI century, that King Philip II accepted to give full priority to the passing of the sheep throughout the Spanish territory, triggering the destruction of crops in regions like Castille, which is also said to be the main cause of desertification in the region. In the XVII century wool was the first Spanish product to be commercialized in the Amsterdam Trade Market, and it was even used to mitigate the economic decline of the Spanish Empire. But the Spanish wool monopoly lasted little more. Just a century later, the first Borbonic regent, Philip V, violated all the protectionist measures that the Mesta so throughly enforced by gifting his progenitor with several Medina sheep for breeding purposes. As over the years this race of sheep expanded throughout Europe and the Americas, the price of the wool fell inexorably, leaving Spain without one of the few important foreign incomes it still had.


In the XIX century the Mesta was nothing more than the shadow of what it once was. Having lost most of its economic influence, and still representing an archaic and decadent kind of power, it was not well seen in a society that was being impregnated of liberal thoughts and submerged in a succession war between the Habsburg absolutist and conservative aspirant to the Spanish Crown, and the liberal government from Isabel II of Spain. This situation brought the Mesta to be abolished in 1836.


Despite the disappearance of the Mesta Council, the Cañadas, Cordeles and Veredas were still preserved as public land destined to the movement of livestock, which out of necessity more than tradition, was still widely used until the 1950's, when the train delivered an almost fatal blow to thousands of years of human and animal on foot migrations throughout the Spanish territory.


Enrique, Alejandro and Juan are three shepherds who still practice the traditional transhumance and could very well be one of the final examples of this practice across the Spanish territory.


All three have a transhumance background in one way or another and, as many others, used the train to transport their flocks from the winter pastures in northern Andalusia to the summer pastures in the Albarracín mountains, and vice versa.  Some years ago, the national train company (RENFE) was restructured for privatization and suppressed the service provided to transport livestock. This forced many sheep owners to hire road transportation instead. During some time the three men used trucks to transport their animals from one side to another despite it had higher costs. Over the years, the fall of lamb meat prices made them look back at the tracks carved with millons of hoof steps over centuries of history. As Enrique sentences: “- For 60€ that we get paid per lamb today, we can not get profit if we send them by truck, and less if we have them stabled and fed during the days the pastures are not good. This is why we decided to go back to the Vereda (name they give to the traditional migration).-”


Today numbers are way far from the migration of 3,500,000 sheep that took place in 1765. The flock that these three men lead accounts for about 2,200 sheep, and it is one of the 3 or 4 flocks that walk through the Cuenca route regularly, being the most oriental of the Castillean Cañadas, one of the most used in Spain. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to count more than a few hand-full thousands of sheeps passing through this path in each season.


Once the flocks of Juan, Enrique and Alejandro are together in the same field, the Vereda, as they commonly call the walking journeys, begins. In front of them lay 23 days of sleeping in a tent with ten hour marches, having to deal with the animals, the weather, the dust, the bugs, etc.  All to cover the 400 Km that separate one region from the other.


It is an overall hard trip, physically demanding despite using horses. Water is also an important issue, it is a precious and scarce good in these latitudes, not easy to provide for the flocks nor for the men, making few the possibilities to have a decent wash on the way. It would be much worst without the “Ato”, which is an all-wheel drive pickup with a trailer, driven by Enrique or his wife Sonia. It carries all the cloths, tents, mattresses, table and chairs, a cooking burner as well as animal gear. The driver also provides the group with, more or less, fresh food and water, among other small luxuries like beer, coffee, and even some spirits which help to heal a bit the souls and bodies after a long journey. All of them preserve in their memories how their parents or close relatives had to do the trip in a much more treacherous manner, only having a few donkeys as “Ato”, which carried a few blankets, water supplies, some long lasting foods like bread, cured cheese, salt ham or canned sardines, and perhaps, with a bit of luck, some wine.


Transhumance is not only about the trip, it is a lifestyle that not everyone is willing to do. In the old times transportation was complicated and costly, so the shepherd moved with his flock to the pastures where he generally lived in a self made cabin, leaving his family behind for several months. In other occasions, the families were created along the routes, sometimes easing the stay and the pastures in one and the other side of the migration.  “- Sometimes people think we do this to keep a tradition alive, but none who says that knows how hard it is to be a transhumant shepherd. Far from our love for tradition, we do this to get some profit out of our flocks.-” Says Enrique, criticizing those who only think about the bucolic part of it. While he continues to explain how complicated it is to deal with living between two places, the kids education and medical issues, the animal papers and veterinary controls, as well as a bunch of situations that they would not suffer with a sedentary lifestyle, “-It is not only the Vereda that is hard-” they say.


But a walk through the Cañadas is enough to get an idea of which is the real state of the transhumance in Spain. In some locations you see all kind of construction debris or garbage that invades the paths. In others, you see houses or gardens which are built invading the public boundaries of the path with total impunity. It is even possible to find public leisure infrastructures like pick-nick sights, a basket court or even an almost surrealistic golf course built on the very same path of the Cañada.


As if it were one of those bizarre revenges that history takes over the years, the biggest hazard for the transhumance is precisely how the power of the agricultural farmers has surpassed, by far, that of the sheep owners, relegating the Cañadas to almost a testimonial existence in some places. This is very visible in many territories of Castille La Mancha where it is common to see how the farmers put their crops and vineyards well beyond the milestones that mark the limits of the path. But it is in Cuenca province where all this becomes more than evident. Most of the Cañadas have been narrowed barely to a car mud track following several agricultural soil reparcellings in the decades of the 1960's and 70's. In other occasions paths have simply been diverted through some impracticable mountain side to recover some of the lands for crops. It is also usual to see how sheep have to zig-zag between different cereal fields and sunflower plantations due to their disposal, making the governance of the flocks ever more difficult.


Spain, as a nation, can not be understood without the Moorish and the “Reconquista”, the discovery of the Amercias or last century civil war. Nevertheless transhumance seems to lack the victories and the glory of other historic events that would preserve the lingering remains of what has inevitably marked the country further than many can imagine. Despite all, and behind the sometimes awkward character of the shepherds and their often laconic conversations, it is easily visible in their eyes that they are proud to follow the footsteps of  their ancestors, whom, without even thinking about it, probably changed the fate of a nation.


By Xabier Mikel Laburu




© Xabier Mikel Laburu, all rights reserved.               Terms and conditions     Privacy    GDPR statement

© Xabier Mikel Laburu, all rights reserved.  

Terms and conditions     Privacy    GDPR statement