The idea of moving sheep(or cows) to greener pastures for better grazing is a concept that has been among shepherds the world over for thousands of years but here in Spain the “transhumancia”(the moving of sheep from one pasture grazing area to another) is an amazing logistical and cultural phenomenon with a peculiar Spanish flavour..
Sheep are moved from lowland winter grazing to highland summer grazing and vice versa. Often this is on a South/North axis but sometimes it is just a height related axis (mountains/lowlands). In the spring and about now in October cattle and sheep farmers all over the country move their cattle hundreds of kilometres. This is now mainly done by truck but it has always been done on foot along paths and tracks known as “cañadas” which are basically a network of historical rights of way for the shepherds and their flocks. Literally millions of sheep in the 19th and 20thcentury were moved along these routes all over Spain.
Once a year, almost always in October, I go walking with friends in mountainous region of Spain. Lots of camaderie, good food(and wine!) and strenuous walking has been part of these trips for over ten years now. Always in a beautiful , rural and mountainous area. We have been to the Sierra de Los Gredos, Parque Natural de Cazorla, los Montes Universales in Cuenca/Teruel, the Pyrenees, the Picos de Europa, Soria, Los Alpujarras and more places.
The really great thing about these walks is that even whilst walking with a bunch of friends, you still have plenty of reflextion time during the daily hike to take in what you see of the countryside and the customs in the villages you pass through and contemplate these things whilst walking. We have seen and experienced this movement of sheep and have talked to the shepherds and owners, quite a few times at length.
When asked about the custom of moving their sheep they tell you with pride about their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers who used the same route and how in the case of one shepherd in Teruel he and his neighbour were the last to do the bi-annual trek between Teruel and Jaen (there and back) on foot.(The sheep farmers of Teruel and Cuenca traditionally take their flocks to the gentler climes of Sierra Morena or to sierras in Jaen for the winter months.) As they travel south along century old paths and tracks, they sleep out at night, camping under the stars and walk with their sheep, large shepherd dogs and pack horses during the day. Their lifestyle strikes me as very similar to the cowboys of the Wild West. They live with the flock and on the move. In the old days they had to protect their flock from thieves, wolves and other dangers. But now, although a certain romanticism remains, the only real danger are roads and traffic.
Once we were talking to an old shepherd who was telling us about his sheep, his life in the sierra, the “transhumancia”, his childhood memories, the hardships of being a shepherd etc . What he told us were great stories and some real life facts about mountain life in the last hundred years. Then , suddenly, he stopped in mid-sentence and he asked us where we were walking to and when we told him he took off his cap, scratched his head and said, ”Why are you going there?”. And when we told him we were walking there for fun and to see the countryside he smiled ,his strangely common Teruel mountain blue eyes twinkling, as he half shouted, ” For fun?! Fun?!” Walking for him was a way of life. It wasn’t fun but he was fiercely proud of his way of life.