On the rocky hills of Brieva de Cameros, paths made by summering flocks of sheep and goats form a tracery of paths. As winter nears, shepherds herd the animals to warmer winter pastures. As it has for centuries, the route leads through one of the busiest cities in Spain—Madrid.
Though it means threading their animals through the traffic of a major city, Spain’s shepherds continue to defend their ancient grazing lands and the annual migration between winter and summer pastures. The Transhumancia, as the migration is called, relies on the land to feed the livestock instead of on the massive inputs of fossil fuel required by the industrial model of farming, where animals are trucked instead of driven and may have limited access to healthy grazing.
The traditional paths, Cañadas Reales, cover some 125,000 km of Spain. Although they are legally protected, they are increasingly threatened by developments that bar the way. (The Spanish video linked here includes footage of the Madrid portion as well as parts of the route.)
The Cañadas Reales pre-date agriculture, tracing the same paths used by wild animals and followed by hunters. With domestication came the need for livestock to be moved to fresh pastures so that fresh grass and water could be available in any season.
Spanish conservationist Jesús Garzón sees the 7,000-year-old grazing system as a solution to today’s environmental problems. In a Spanish documentary about the Transhumancia tradition, he says:
It improves soil fertility, creates ecological migration routes to prevent species from extinction, ensures the distribution of seeds across hundreds of miles so they can get into new ecosystems and other ecological niches, stimulates the population of beneficial insects, and ensures that water seeps into the ground.
Garzón says the grazing migration provides stable work while preserving an ancient tradition. Since the young learn from the old and young researchers and volunteers study and assist with transhumancia, it also narrows the generation gap. Though threatened by development, the annual migration continues, a tribute to the past and an investment in the future.
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Photo of transhumancia from cirano18 video on YouTube
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