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Drovers’ ways

July 11, 2011 – 12:01 pm

Not a transhumance, but some Andalucian livestock being driven (or droven?).

I know I mention this quite often, but one of the reasons I love living here in Andalucia is that I’m always learning more about the region: the people, the history, the culture, the geography, the gastronomy, the wildlife… the list goes on and on. In a region this diverse, where every town has its own traditions and dialect, you could easily spend your entire life trying to understand and catalogue everything you see and hear, and not get close.

In this case, I’ve learned a new English word, too; transhumance (in Spanish, transhumancia). This is the centuries-old practice of moving herds of livestock from lowland winter pastures, to higher summer grazing. It occurs, or has occurred, throughout the world, from Australia to the Alps, and from Scotland to South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. It is perhaps most famous in Switzerland, where cows are taken from lush green valleys up to Alpine meadows (think Heidi).

Andalucia, for all its magnificent beaches, historic cities and luxury holiday resorts, has for centuries been a rural part of Spain, where some people are still tied to the land and have little interest in cities, technology or the internet. Farmers have kept their livestock here since long, long before the tourists started arriving to marvel at the Moorish wonders and lay their towels on the white sand.

But the modern world is fast encroaching on traditional life in Andalucia. There are 30,000km of vias pecuarias (drovers’ paths, which have right of way), but over 75% of these are blocked off. It is estimated that in the early 1990s, 200,000 sheep and cattle were still being taken to and from summer pastures, but a decade later, that number had dropped to 20,000. And half of these are transported in trucks; only 10,000 still use the old drovers’ ways.

I read about families who took their herds from villages in Granada to the sierras of Cordoba in winter, returning the following summer. It’s a 350km-ish trip each way, and takes 25-30 days. With 100 head of cattle to watch – that’s cash on four legs for these farmers – they don’t stop for the usual long Spanish lunch, followed by a siesta. Each one grabs a bite when they can, while the others watch the ganado (livestock), and they sleep wherever they stop for the night, in their sleeping bags.

This Canal Sur video (see link below) about a transhumance is worth watching, though the accents are so thick, it takes a couple of viewings before you can actually understand what they’re saying to the TV reporter. Some are on horseback (like the cattle drives of the American Midwest, though I didn’t see any lassos) and some on foot; one chap was so quick on his feet that the reporter, some years younger, had trouble keeping up with him.

In national terms, these paths cover 125,000km, a little less than 1% of Spain’s surface area. Some claim that the oldest cañadas reales, as they’re also called, go back to Neolithic times, and that they follow the routes of migratory animals such as deer and wild ox. Humans followed them to hunt this game, and later followed the same tracks with their own ganado.

The reality for droveways these days is less bucolic: roads, reservoirs and, barbed wire and shopping centres all block their way. Last month, the UPA (Union de Pequeños Agricultores y Ganaderos) staged a transhumance demonstration – 100 shepherds took 2000 head of sheep along 11km of public road (the A301 between Ubeda and La Carolina, in Jaen province).

The purpose of this was to show that their via pecuarias have been blocked by the new Giribaile reservoir, a fact which they wanted to bring to public attention. The UPA spokesman explained that at times, they have no other option but to use public roads, in spite of the dangers which this poses, both to the animals (tarmac damages the sheep’s hooves, and it’s not unknown for some to be killed), and to traffic.

The good news is that the Environment Department of the Junta has demarcated 8,100km of cañada for restoration to its original usage, and is aiming to have 24,000km more by 2020. Let’s hope this age-old tradition can be kept alive, in the face of ever-increasing destruction of our rural landscape.

Video of Canal Sur TV report about a transhumance.

  1. 2 Responses to “Drovers’ ways”

  2. Very interesting. I remember learning about transhumance in geography lessons at school. Nice to know it’s still practiced in Spain, albeit under a multitude of restrictions.

    By Sally on Jul 12, 2011

  3. I don’t remember that class at school! Yes, let’s hope it carries on, and the Junta manages to free up some more of the tracks too. Fewer illegal houses and hotels ruining protected land, more sheep and cattle walking over the same terrain they have for centuries. We can but hope.

    By fiona on Jul 13, 2011

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