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Shepherds Wanted: Apply in Spain

Know any shepherds?

Do you know any shep­herds? Any friends in the pro­fes­sion? Per­haps an aspir­ing niece or nephew? When I first start­ed vis­it­ing Spain in the 1980’s I was amazed by how many peo­ple were active­ly employed in the field. (Hmm, I’ll stick with that pun.) I still remem­ber how excit­ed I was when I got the oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend all day with a shep­herd in Aragon. I’m not sure I would have want­ed to ded­i­cate a life­time to it, but what a great mem­o­ry learn­ing about the work and hang­ing out with the world’s smartest (and hap­pi­est) dogs. 

Sheep (espe­cial­ly the Meri­no breed) have always been crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant to Spain. Spain is not a farm­ing coun­try at scale. There are very few areas where wheat or corn grows for miles as it does in the Amer­i­can Mid­west. Spain is moun­tain­ous, rocky, and cli­mat­i­cal­ly harsh, with irri­ga­tion being a com­mon chal­lenge. Of course, you have tena­cious olive trees stretch­ing to the hori­zon in the arid south. You have orchards. You have grapes that pro­duce some of the best wines in the world pre­cise­ly because of their strug­gles as they work against their rel­a­tive­ly harsh envi­ron­ments. To some extent, the Span­ish have always relied on meat to close the gap in their food pro­duc­tion capac­i­ty. Sheep are a mul­ti-pur­pose solu­tion. In addi­tion to meat (and wool), their milk remains a sta­ple for cheese pro­duc­tion. Que­so Manchego is among the most famous.

A lit­tle his­to­ry. As I’ve writ­ten before, the explo­sion of Span­ish pow­er and influ­ence in the 16th Cen­tu­ry did not bring wealth. Instead, it brought debt. The Haps­burg mon­archs, using colo­nial pro­duc­tion as equi­ty, got them­selves so deeply oblig­at­ed to Euro­pean bankers that one can argue that Spain nev­er ful­ly recov­ered. (By the way, they wast­ed most of that mon­ey fight­ing Turks and Protes­tants.) In any case, wool exports became a cen­tral strat­e­gy for pay­ing off debts. In order to con­trol and tax wool rev­enue, the crown basi­cal­ly mort­gaged its domes­tic future to the pow­er­ful sheep own­ers’ guild (La Mes­ta). Part of the deal was to give rights-of-way to sheep in per­pe­tu­ity. The guild had estab­lished hun­dreds of miles of these rights-of-way (drove roads) through­out the Penin­su­la, mak­ing it almost impos­si­ble for many farm­ers to pro­tect their har­vests from for­ag­ing live­stock. (In 1627 it is esti­mat­ed that there were over 7 mil­lion sheep in Spain.) Even the streets of mod­ern-day Madrid are part of this sys­tem, and the Crown’s agree­ment with La Mes­ta has nev­er been abro­gat­ed. If you vis­it Madrid in late Octo­ber, you’ll wit­ness thou­sands of sheep tra­vers­ing the metrop­o­lis to both cel­e­brate and exer­cise the rights of their own­ers. (Watch your step please.)

Sheep move for two rea­sons. First, they are trans­port­ed to mar­ket. Today, this is gen­er­al­ly accom­plished by truck or train. The sec­ond rea­son they are moved is tran­shu­mance. This is the sim­ple idea of mov­ing sheep for for­ag­ing rea­sons, to warmer cli­mates in win­ter and less arid cli­mates in sum­mer. Although tran­shu­mance is no longer an eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty, it accom­plish­es sev­er­al things. First, it is eco­log­i­cal­ly sound. For­ag­ing is a nat­ur­al process that keeps ground cov­er healthy. Sec­ond­ly, tran­shu­mant sheep are hap­py and active. We have seen the free-range” move­ment here in the US as well. Final­ly, with the re-intro­duc­tion of bears and wolves on the Penin­su­la, tran­shu­mant flocks with attend­ing dogs and shep­herds remain less sus­cep­ti­ble to attack. 

The impor­tance of 21st Cen­tu­ry tran­shu­mance has result­ed in a resur­gence for the pro­fes­sion of shep­herd­ing. Shep­herds are encour­aged to become cer­ti­fied through 4 – 6 month gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned train­ing pro­grams. Fur­ther­more, the re-intro­duc­tion of the Penin­su­lar Black Bear has result­ed in sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of EU fund­ing for shep­herd train­ing and employment.

Vis­i­tors to Spain can actu­al­ly par­tic­i­pate in mul­ti-day tran­shu­mance, or you and your group can sim­ply spend the day with a shep­herd. These expe­ri­ences are unique ways to con­nect with peo­ple, land, and cul­ture. Even if you don’t take advan­tage of this oppor­tu­ni­ty, it is like­ly that you will end up in a sheep-jam at least once. (See the pho­to below.) In the past, sheep were under the king’s pro­tec­tion while on the right-of-way. Killing or injur­ing one, would have result­ed in the death penal­ty or a heavy fine for the guilty par­ty. Although I sus­pect that if it hap­pened today, you would not be exe­cut­ed, you might well have to face the wrath of an angry shep­herd. So dri­ve friendly!

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Sheep-Jam near Medina del Campo