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Transhumance has existed in Spain for hundreds of years. The traditional migration of livestock, in which shepherds move herds along the huge network of tracks known as the cañadas, has played a vital social, economic and environmental role in the country’s history – but now it is struggling to stay alive.

I am to accompany Lionel Martorell, one of Spain’s last transhumants, on a five-day November journey from the mountains to the lowlands in search of milder climes and better pastures for his cow herd. Despite living in a village at 4,439ft inhabited by 200 people in winter, he welcomes the idea of a stranger shadowing him. Others are more cautious – when I arrive at Fortanete, in the mountainous Maestrazgo region, a old villager shouts at me from his home, curious as to my intentions. “Transhumance was important in the past – thirty families in the village took their cattle to the lowlands and back, but only two people still do it,” he explains once I account for myself. “The practice is dying – its end is inevitable.”

Fortanete is situated in South-east Aragón, a region with a notable transhumance past. Herds have been moved since the times of the Reconquista, enjoying the protection of monarchs and powerful farmers’ organisations such as the Casa de Ganaderos, formed in the 13th century. The 125,000km droveway network of cañadas, which encompasses most of  Spain and is four times greater than the rail network, was created by King Alfonso X in 1273 using Aragonese ligallos, local organisations that defended the interest of livestock farmers, as a source of inspiration for the instauration of the Mesta, the sheep holder’s association that would determine all rules and regulations. Shepherds enjoyed privileges and tax exemptions, and the animals could travel along the droveways, which have since gained legal protection. Spain became a powerful nation partly because of the trading of wool from Merino sheep that traversed the cañadas. But times have changed – the Mesta was abolished almost two hundred years ago, most transhumance has been replaced by lorry transportation, and herders find little profit in remaining loyal to the old system.

I meet Lionel and his team the night before we set out. He is the only shepherd, but two more will travel by foot, four on horseback and a backup truck will carry all the kit needed for the journey. Over dinner, Lionel sheds some light on his life. “We are all from Amposta, in the Ebro river delta. My father was a transhumant, he would travel to Fortanete and back with his herds every year. I’m forty-seven and have been doing this journey for over thirty years – it’s in the blood.”

For decades, transhumants have helped to maintain cultural and social links between towns and villages. Ties between the people of Amposta and Fortanete are strong – Lionel’s wife is from Fortanete. “The vet has completed the tests on the cows and they are in perfect shape,” he tells me. “The journey should take five days and we will cover 140km. The animals will stay in Amposta until the beginning of the summer, when they will return to the mountains.”

We take off early with ninety-one Avileña cows, 500-600kg black beasts renowned for the quality of their meat. The animals set a considerable pace, and it’s hard to keep up. “Notice how a couple of the cows are leading the way,” Lionel says. “They have done the journey before – they recognise the route and are aware they are heading for better pastures. But this year the cows will move at a slower pace. There are many calves in the herd that will tire soon, and the cows are bulkier as a result of excellent pastures in the mountains. They will not carry on like this.”

Tame cows may not be as aggressive as wild cattle, but are slower and more easily distracted in a transhumance. The horse riders have a tough time keeping the animals on the trail and out of the pine forests, while those on foot work hard to guide the herd with rods and stones. Soon we leave the pine forests behind, and the droveway boundaries become more defined. The day passes without incident and we make the most of the last rays of sunlight, finishing in the pitch dark.

Over dinner, we talk about the evolution of transhumance. “We are not doing anything new,” Lionel explains. “Millions of years ago, animals completed the same migratory routes. Traces of nomadic hunters have been found both in these mountains and in the Ebro river delta. They were following their potential preys to hunt them, so we know the animals were already covering these journeys in search of better grazing land and climate. All we have done is domesticate them.”

The sun comes up on the next stage of the journey. Warm weather is predicted for later, so the shepherds opt to make the most of the morning chill. The summer trip back to the mountains may be tougher on the animals, but there is no avoiding the rocks and stones, nor the road tarmac. The herd starts to struggle, as hooves erode away and some cows start bleeding.

The presence of country roads and asphalt along the droveway exemplifies one of the major issues that threatens the cañadas, that of human interference. These meadows are not only seen by conservationists as travel routes, but as greenway corridors that link up ecosystems. The cañada must have a width of ninety Castilian varas (72,22 metres), and livestock have priority over anything that does not respect the trail’s official use, such as roads, farms and buildings. But the constant degrading of these meadows caused by the development of roads and villages is creating severe problems in livestock movement.

This trip is no exception – the herd has had to cross paved A-roads, stopping traffic in the process, and the shepherds have endured abuse from landowners unhappy at the presence of cows in their orchards and groves. “Things can get nasty,” Lionel says. “We do all we can to stop the cattle from going into their farms and plots, but the truth of the matter is that they are the ones not abiding by the rules. The droveways are clearly demarcated by law, and anyone can obtain the maps from the public administration. It’s obvious that there is no physical trace of the original width, but they are still using up land designated for livestock movement.”

Our day ends in the semi-deserted hamlet of La Llacua in Castellón province. We drink coffee and punch to keep warm, and the team swaps stories and problems around the bonfire. “You are bearing witness to the death throes of transhumance in Spain,” Lionel tells me. “Only three per cent of cattle in the country is now transhumant, and the numbers will keep dropping. People just don’t see the advantages of this practice. It uses its own resources and gives excellent products. Cañadas are natural spaces and if transhumance disappears so will the cattle routes, they go hand in hand.”

The direct benefits of transhumance do not stop with society. Scientists and conservationists defend its contribution to nature conservation and argue that mountain and lowland ecosystems survive thanks to it. As cattle move from one area to another, they reduce pressure on the land, as excessive grazing can lead to species extinction and soil erosion. At the same time, grazing along the droveways helps to keep the trails clean, stop forest fires and contribute to tree regeneration.

Right now, one of the biggest arguments in favour of transhumance is its role in maintaining biodiversity. The next day, Pascual, one of the horse riders, points out the importance of cattle in the dispersion of species: “They carry seeds in their stomachs and also in their hooves, which are transported for hundreds of miles, enabling species to spread.” The decline in transhumance, it seems, is having a negative impact on genetic diversity, endangering flora and fauna. Reduced plant seed movement is affecting flower diversity, which has a knock-on effect on insects. Meanwhile, scientific studies show the close relationship between transhumance and the abundance of animal species such as vultures, cranes and reptiles.

We continue through Castellón province, the cows advancing slowly along minor roads, mountain passes and gullies. The Mediterranean woodland gives way to orange groves, holm oaks and almond trees. By the end of the fourth day, the pace has dropped dramatically, the calves forced to rest in backup trucks and jeeps. The herd has covered an average of 30km a day, but the animals have been stretched to the limit.

On the last day of our journey, I wake at 6am to admire a star-studded sky I had long forgotten you could witness in rural Spain. It feels like yet another example of how transhumance is in tune with the landscape and the environment. The herd enters Catalonia early, and I look around, taking in the weary yet happy faces. A migrating shepherd feels that leaving their family behind  and enduring cold nights in near solitude is compensated by the freedom of rural life, the intimacy with nature and the importance of conserving a heritage of great cultural value. Today, there are questions about how this vast knowledge will be passed on if the practice dies out, and as we complete our journey, I can’t help but feel I’ve observed the last custodians of a millennial tradition.

© Copyright - Diego Vivanco