Win-win-win: Reinstating sheep transhumance in Spain

Restoration, cultural and economic benefits

The 1,400 sheep walking through the town of Mayorga in northern Spain during the last few days of their 579-kilometer transhumance. Credit: Fundación Monte Mediterráneo
29 June 2021

By Fiona Flintan, senior scientist, International Livestock Research Institute, and Marco Buemi, photojournalist and sustainable development expert

After 33 days and a 579-kilometer trek along the Cañada Real Leonesa Occidental from Sierra de Fuentes area in Cáceres, Spain, 1,400 sheep and their shepherd Francisco Morgado Galet arrive in their summer pastures. They’ve walked around 20 kilometers daily to reach these pastures in Las Pintas in Northern Spain’s Picos de Europa National Park. In rain and sunshine, they’ve traversed the 1,391-meter Puerto del Pico pass, walked through fields and along highways, crossed 76 municipalities of 5 provinces and the three Autonomous Communities of Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León. Yet the sheep arrive in good health, if a little disoriented by their experience. 

After 33 days and 579 kilometers of walking, Francisco Morgado Galet and the 1,400 sheep arrive in Las Pintas for the summer.  Credit: Fundación Monte Mediterráneo
After 33 days and 579 kilometers of walking, Francisco Morgado Galet and the 1,400 sheep arrive in Las Pintas for the summer.  Credit: Fundación Monte Mediterráneo

The initiative was the idea of Francisco and Ernestine Lüdeke, a German lady who came to Spain to work in her country’s pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo and stayed. Ernestine and her husband founded the Fundación Monte Mediterráneo and acquired a 700-hectare dehesa in southern Spain – a highly productive and environmentally-friendly silvopastoralism system combining trees with livestock. In this system, oak trees are used to extract cork and provide acorns for feeding the famous Iberian pigs that graze beneath while also supporting the production of Merino sheep, Iberian cows, and related agritourism and educational ventures. The dehesa is where Francisco and his sheep start their summer journey north.

Listen to Ernestine talking about the dehesa silvopastoral systems.

The last time Francisco undertook the transhumance by foot was 25 years ago. With Ernestine, he decided to revitalize the tradition to raise awareness on the importance of transhumance for the sustainability of livestock production and pastoralists in Spain. Though today this transhumance is still carried out by many livestock keepers by truck, there is an important reason for the sheep to make the walk: it gets them off the winter pastures in the south of the country one month earlier, allowing greater regeneration of vegetation and saplings. This serves to better preserve the dehesa system, while also contributing to the management of the mountain meadows in the north.

The 1,400 sheep leaving the Sierra de Fuentes area in Cáceres on day 1 of their transhumance.
 

This transhumance initiative raises publicity on the need for greater investment in pastoralism in Spain, including through the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) currently under review, and particularly in the servicing of the transhumance routes that have seen little maintenance for many years now and are often blocked by piles of rubbish.

Indeed, according to Francisco and Ernestine, the greatest challenge over the last 33 days has been the blockages to the transhumance routes. Many were difficult to follow due to years of neglect, and others had seen illegal buildings and other infrastructure built on them or been subsumed or encroached upon by farmers’ fields or vines for wine production. There are few designated resting places, few watering points, no veterinary posts to provide essential services and no dedicated places for crossing the roads.

Unfriendly road crossings were a key challenge for the sheep and their shepherds on the transhumance.

Transhumance has a long history in Spain. The transhumance routes or cañadas (traditional rights of way for sheep) are legally protected in perpetuity from being built upon, cultivated or blocked. The most important cañadas were called cañadas reales, ‘royal cañadas,‘ because they were established by royal decrees. Covering thousands of kilometers they were established in the 12th century, with several going through major cities including Madrid. The Cañada Real Leonesa Occidental (no. 3 in the below map) along which Francisco’s sheep migrated is one of the Cañadas de la Mesta that has its origins in the province of León and its southern tip in the province of Badajoz.

Map of the cañadas reales traversing Spain from the northern summer pastures to the winter pastures in the south. Diotime, Wikimedia Commons
Map of the cañadas reales traversing Spain from the northern summer pastures to the winter pastures in the south. Diotime, Wikimedia Commons

With this spring transhumance now safely behind him, Francisco and his flock can look forward to some rest, enjoying the summer pastures of Las Pintas before returning to the south in October. In the meantime, Ernestine and her team will continue to lobby the Spanish government and the E.U. to give greater support to pastoralism both politically and financially, as without this, the win-win-win provided by sheep transhumance in Spain will surely die. 

This particular transhumance initiative was supported by “OVINNOVA: Un modelo innovador de negocio para la trashumancia, una práctica ancestral y necesaria”  project financed by the Ministry of Agriculture through the Rural Development Program 2014-2020 and by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) of the EU, and the Monte Mediterráneo Foundation, created by Ernestine Lüdeke and allows young people from all over the world to get to know the Spanish culture and the language while developing activities in nature. 

This article is part of a series of articles produced in support of the recently launched Rangelands Atlas, developed by partners FAO, UNEP, IUCN, ILC Rangelands Initiative, WWF and ILRI. The Atlas is available here. For more information on the dehesa silvopastoralism system, visit the Federation of Dehesa here. The Atlas was presented at the GLF Africa and a recording of the session can be found here.


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