Asociación Trashumancia y Naturaleza was created in 1997 to help livestock-raising families. It provides them with new technology – electric fencing to quickly corral the animals so herders can rest; logistical support – mobile phones so they can check the times of dangerous train crossings or warn the Guardia Civil to cut the traffic ahead; or help with red tape. To date, the Association has managed the return to transhumance of some 200,000 sheep, goats, cows and horses.
In Spain, 10,000 farming families, with over a million head of livestock, move their animals between winter and summer pastures. Most use trucks, but around 3,000 of their number still walk the same drovers’ roads accorded the protection of Alfonso X. The goal they are pursuing is everlasting spring: with the cold of autumn they abandon the mountains of Aragón, Catalonia, La Rioja or Castilla y León for the sheltered valleys and dehesa grasslands of Extremadura, Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha or Eastern Spain. In May, they make their way back, as the hot, dry season settles in. The sheep graze as they advance – 20 kilometers a day, over a month’s journey – and the drovers sleep in tents, cook with butane gas, and build fires to dry off clothing wet from the rain or snow.
It was a surprise to learn that not only traditions accompany the drovers and their herds. They also carry seeds. So many, in fact, that long-distance movements of ungulates are now considered one of the drivers of plant migrations, on a par with other phenomena like glaciations or tornados. Spanish researchers – who took samples as they followed transhumant herds – have recently discovered that a herd of one hundred cows, or a flock of a thousand sheep produce three tons of manure daily loaded with around five million seeds. And at least 30% germinate. The animals are authentic vessels transporting seeds “tens or even hundreds of kilometers from where they were consumed,” according to the Trashumancia y Naturaleza award submission.
Seed dispersal is only one example of the relations between transhumance and biodiversity. The Transhumance White Paper published by Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Environment in 2013 remarks that drovers’ roads are used by many species “for breeding, food and shelter,” and act therefore as “biodiversity reservoirs”. They also combat wildfires and erosion, connect up habitats and enable gene exchange within species. All invaluable functions, considering that – as the White Paper puts it – “habitat fragmentation is currently one of the main causes of biodiversity loss.”
It was precisely an unforeseen ecological effect of transhumance, or rather its absence, that inspired the project in which Trashumancia y Naturaleza is now engaged. In the mid-1900s, when serving as Director-General for the Environment with the Regional Government of Extremadura, Garzón realized that “in the past one hundred years there had been barely any regeneration of the dehesa tree cover. This made me think about what major change could have occurred in the region a hundred years before, and the only possible answer was the train. Since the train arrived, livestock droving was no longer done on foot.”
With the train, transhumance lasted one day. The month-long journey of before became an “extra” month for the cattle to graze in the dehesa. However it was June by then, and with the ground dry, the animals had no alternative but to feed off the new tree shoots, effectively putting paid to grassland regeneration. Thus was revealed a new node in the ecosystem network; further proof that the Iberian landscape is the result of the millennial synchronization of it inhabitants – humans, livestock, holm oak – both between themselves and with the climate.
Determined to bring back traditional transhumance, Garzón set up a number of associations in 1992. The following year, he secured funding under the European Union LIFE program, and managed to convince some cattle farmers who “had initially protested that the paths were bad or non-existent,” he says today”. But I had studied them and knew you could get large herds along them.”
The first “resumed” transhumance was in 1993. With the collaboration of livestock farmer Cesáreo Rey, and the support of the Extremadura Parliament, drovers took 2,600 merino sheep from Alcántara Bridge in Cáceres along the Cañada Real Zamorana (historical drove route) to the mountains of Porto de Sanabria in Zamora. Garzón remembers it well: “It was an inspiring moment. For the first time, Spanish herders were at the center of media attention”.
One major milestone was securing legal protection for the drovers’ roads.” Members of parliament were reticent about approving a 1273 law in 1995,” Garzón recalls”. But the stir we made in the international press helped to get it through, and it was a revolution.”
To date, the Association has managed the return to transhumance of some 200,000 sheep, goats, cows and horses”. Transhumance is undoubtedly a coming thing in Europe,” affirms its Head of Projects Marity González”. It has gone from being a residue of the past to being considered a highly profitable form of livestock management with an exciting future.”
This is not to say that things are easy for the drovers of the 21st century. Many of the obstacles confronted in the last few decades have not gone away. Drovers’ roads are poorly conserved, and frequently invaded by crops, buildings or rubble, on top of which there is some discoordination between the competent authorities.
For them, transhumance is above all a way of life. Their families have two homes. Until November, the children attend school in the mountains, and from then till summer on the plains. On weekends in May and June, mothers and children visit the herders as they head for the higher pastures. For Trashumancia y Naturaleza, this is the way of life that will revitalize the countryside. Their goal is certainly ambitious: three million transhumant sheep in 2020, and 5,000 direct jobs in micro enterprises serving the transhumance. If they succeed, the solution for the rural world of the 21st century will be one with its roots in the Middle Ages.
“Until the early 19th century, each spring and fall Spain was crossed by five million heads of livestock, principally merino sheep”, Garzón explains”. It was a millennial tradition of incalculable social, cultural, economic and environmental importance”. The herders, in their travels, brought with them songs, stories and craft techniques. Subsequent industrialization, the emptying of the countryside and the advent of intensive farming – among other factors – led to the practice being lost in the 20th century.
Trashumancia y Naturaleza has successfully brought it back to the present. The citation for the 2013 BBVA Foundation Award for Biodiversity Conservation Projects in Spain recognizes the organization’s twenty years of work “on behalf of transhumance and extensive farming in Spain, a traditional herding practice that helps maintain numerous natural habitats which would otherwise become lost or degraded”. Transhumance, it continues, “connects with one of the most singular facets of universal rural culture, encouraging sustainable use of pastureland while championing the herder’s trade”.