AT RISK – The Trashumance Of Autumn 2000

This summer it was remarkably dry and cold in the mountains. The
evening storms that usually maintain pastures green well into the autumn did
not arrive at all. By the end of August the high meadows that normally
provide abundant and nourishing grass for the herds at this time of the year
were dry and bare, exhausted. In addition to the chill, wolf attacks
became a serious problem on our arrival in the mountains this year. On July 15, wolves killed 11 sheep in Pandetrave, seizing a small group that, unbeknown to us,
had remained outside the sheepfold for the night. A family of
wolves, an adult couple with three cubs, also lived near Peñalba, and was often
seen stalking the herd by the shepherds nearby. This family of wolves made
a kill almost every week, eight sheep in all, usually choosing out animals that had
fallen behind. In mid-August we brought two extra mastiff dogs to Peñalba
to protect the herd and, after that, there were no more attacks.

But the situation became critical on September 15, when one of our
shepherds, Antonio González, suffered a heart attack while up in the Pandetrave
mountains. He was able to communicate with the other shepherds at Peñalba by
mobile telephone, and was rescued by a cattleman from Santa Marina de
Valdeón and taken to town. From Valdeón, an ambulance drove him to the
hospital of León, where he received medical care until he recovered
sufficiently to be able to be transferred to the hospital of Coria, near his
home. Although, fortunately, he is now out of danger and recovering, he has
been unable to return to the herd, and we had to do without his
valuable help during the very difficult return route.

The day that Antonio fell sick, I was in the Sierra de Segura (Jaén),
attending a congress on transhumance organized by the city
councils of Santiago de la Espada and Pontones. As soon as I was notified, I
returned to Pandetrave to help Juan Francisco Pablos, who had arrived from
Extremadura to take care of Antonio’s flock and lead it down to Barniedo de
la Reina. In view of the bitter cold and lack of pastures in the
mountains and of the difficult situation created by Antonio’s illness, we
decided it was wisest for the flocks still in Peñalba and in Aguasalio led by Indalecio Rivas and Manuel Crespo, start the descent to the valley immediately, and join Juan Francisco the following day in Besande, to be able to continue travelling together southwards.

Thus, the transhumance route this autumn began in extremely difficult
conditions, two weeks earlier than foreseen. Unfortunately, the situation
did not improve once we reached the plains of Palencia. Some 900 pregnant
sheep were taken by lorry to Extremadura by Juan Francisco, to avoid the
lambs being born during the hard journey to come. But even after
separating the mothers, there still remained 2,100 sheep and 60 goats in the
care of only two shepherds, and the assistant cum cook cum driver of the support
vehicle, Rubén Lara. In previous years, the departure from the mountains had
been delayed until the autumn, and the rains had guaranteed enough water and food in the cañadas, but this time the drought was general. Although we negotiated
permission to graze the stubble fields with the mayors of several nearby
towns (Guardo, Mantinos, Villalba and Fresno de Río), who were extremely
helpful, when we tried to lead the flocks into the fields, we encountered
fierce opposition from the local cattlemen, who feared that such a large
number of sheep would finish off their grazing reserves.
Even though this was an exceptional situation, such
difficulties provide unequivocal evidence of the urgent need to
preserve and to improve the drove roads, as well as the resting sites and
water points along them. The route covered during the first weeks of our
return journey is part of the Cañada Real Oriental Leonesa, and though the
mandatory 75-meter width of the cañada has been respected, the shade
provided by dense pine reafforestations alongside and the numerous
tracks and firecuts that crisscross the drove road have rendered it almost
useless in terms of grazing for our herd. Furthermore, the only available
water point available nearby is the Laguna de San Roque, which has very little
water at this time of the year, and is polluted by the local farmers who use
it to fill and to clean herbicide tanks, leaving the containers of toxic
products scattered along the river banks. Once more, intensive agriculture
and pine, strongly subsidized with public funds, undermine
extensive livestock systems linked to the conservation of very valuable
ecosystems. A sad paradox, very close to the drover road in this area
lie the fertile lands of the River Carrion, plentiful in water and abundant
in grazing resources, but inaccessible to the herd for lack of appropriate
runs leading from the cañada to the river, exception made of some earth
tracks with very dangerous gravel for the hooves of the sheep.
Our only option during the first weeks hence was to continue along the
cañada southwards, profiting whenever we could and while we were allowed of
the scarce grazing resources available, near the few water points along the
way, and to pray for rain and for Antonio to recover and be able to join us..
The open plains with bustards and harriers of northern Palencia were thus
left behind. From there on the cañada runs along the main road
Palencia-Riaño, with heavy road traffic, and is cut across by the road at
various points. In this part of the way it is therefore impossible to
control such a big herd with just two shepherds. We called upon Andrés Durán
who already worked for the transhumance project in the spring route, and who
joined our team a few days before crossing Palencia. With his arrival, and
with the cañada now meandering along the fertile plains of the rivers
Carrion, Pisuerga, Duero, Voltoya, Eresma, and Moros, the situation
gradually became normal, and at last we were able to adjust our route to the
program initially foreseen. From there on we were able to organize the
usual welcoming celebrations of the transhumant shepherds in Coca (October
14), Guadarrama (October 22 and 23), Colmenarejo (October 25) and Madrid
(October 29), that we had postponed until making sure that we would arrive
on time with the herd to the different towns.
The crossing of Madrid was again an impressive display of the splendid folklore of the various Spanish regions linked to transhumance.
Accompanying the shepherds and the herd came family and friends from all
over Spain, the town councils of León with their banners, the muleteers’
maragatos, the neighbors of Prioro, of Requejo, of Montehermoso, and of
Tolbaños de Arriba, with their beautiful traditional costumes and their
joyful music and songs, the ox drivers of Alto Campo, of Canales de la
Sierra and of the Campo Charro with their yokes of oxen, numerous riders on
horseback, and thousands of people and delighted children in the street
greeting the herd as it passed by. The shepherds were received in front of
the House of the Villa by the Environment Authorities, that accompanied the
herd in their passing through Madrid along Calle Mayor, Puerta del Sol,
Street of Alcalá and Square of Cibeles, and on to Puerta of Alcalá, where
the Mayor of Madrid welcomed the shepherds by the two ancient stone markers
of the Cañada Real. He promised the help of the city council for the
celebration of the Trashumancia Day in Madrid, this year and in years to
In Madrid we were also joined by José Manuel Galán, one of our most trusted
and experienced shepherds of previous years. The traditional team of four
shepherds and an assistant for the transhumance was now complete, and the
help of José Manuel in the following weeks would be crucial, for his
knowledge of the drovers‚ road from Madrid southwards to Extremadura. Thus,
the rest of the way was completed with no more than the usual difficulties,
although the absence of pastures due to the drought forced us to acquire
extra feed for the sheep at various points along the way. We finally arrived
at Torrejón el Rubio on November 15, after two months of walking along the
drove roads, in what may be considered the longest Trashumancia ever
carried out with such a big herd through Spain.
After arrival it was necessary to separate the sheep of the three
different herds and lead them to their respective dehesas. The herd wintering
in Las Romanas still had three days of travelling to go, up and across the
mountain pass of Las Corchuelas and La Serrana in the Monfragüe Natural Park,
but with the shepherds now returning home for the night and with Juan
Francisco Pablos in charge. That same night José Manuel with his dogs and
Rubén with the car and trailer loaded with half a dozen mansos (the rams
that are trained to follow the shepherd and lead the herd), and myself, went
to Vadillo de la Sierra (Avila) in the mountains of Gredos, to help the
flock of Julio de la Losa and Transhumance & Natur on the southward journey
to Extremadura, with 1,000 merinos. This transhumance started in Vadillo the
November 17, following the Cañada Real Leonesa Occidental, crossing
Puerto del Pico, with the summits already covered with snow, and then across
the holm-oak woodlands of Oropesa, Navalmoral de la Mata, the river Tajo and
Miravete, to arrive at Mamaleche, its destination near Trujillo, on
November 27. With this, though we still had more trips to make, to take
the shepherds and their dogs home and to pick up the equipment left in the
mountains of the north due to our hurried departure in September, we
completed the transhumance of the year 2000, that started with the departure of
the herds on the May24.

Jesús Garzón Heydt is the founder and president of Associacion Trashumancia y
Naturaleza, and in 2000 received the Slow Food Award for the Defense of

Photo by Cinzia Scaffidi

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