The Idea of Moving Sheep in Spain

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..

Walking in Teruel

Sheep and dog in Teruel mountains

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.

Holidays in the interior of Spain

Sheep in Teruel

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.

Walking in Spain

Walking in the Sierra de Los Gredos

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.

Traditional way of life in Spain

Village life in the mountains

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.

Experiencing the real Spain

Shepherd with his flock

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.

The Spanish Thyme Traveller organise trips on which you can experience the amazing food and culture of the  beautiful interior of Valencia and Teruel .




16 thoughts on “The Idea of Moving Sheep in Spain

  1. Sheep and cheerful post, Paddy! In troubled times it’s nice to see Spain has retained some of the ‘baa’ without the ‘humbug’! And for your next post, we’d all love to hear some of those shepherd stories.

  2. This really leaves me wanting to know more of these ancient routs and traditions , the land-use rights and the future of this farming in our new world!

  3. A wonderful blog, Paddy. I don’t know why it is so satisfying to watch flocks of sheep moving through the green countryside, but it is always a feel-good moment. How lucky we are to live here in Spain and have the chance to enjoy it from time to time (and not as a way of earning our living).

    Karen McCann

  4. In Middle Age, the “Honrado Concejo de Mesta” (organization behind the shepherds) was a powerful lobby. It founded the net of “cañadas” used by the sheeps. And look: one of the more importants incomes in Castile was the wool exported to Flanders.

    • Thanks Rodrigo for your interesting comments. I understand too that alot of tax was raised by Kings and govt over the centuries by taxing the movement of cattle.

    • Thanks for dropping by Phil and commenting.Already in Cuenca and Teruel shepherds tell me 80% or more of the sheep are now moved by truck so it won’t be long before they are all moved that way.