Sheep Crossing: A Medieval Trek in Spain

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Sergio Perez / Reuters

A herd of sheep passes by Madrid's Cibeles fountain on Oct. 31, 2010

Every Sunday, Enrique Corrales stops by the Mallorquina bakery in Madrid's Puerta del Sol for a cup of coffee and a sweet roll. But on Oct. 31, there was an unexpected interruption to his ritual. Leaving the bakery, he was mildly shocked to discover the space that only minutes before had been an urban square had suddenly transformed into a barnyard. Pointing to the herd of woolly, braying animals scampering past McDonald's, he asked, reasonably enough, "Why are there sheep in the center of Madrid?"

To answer that question, you have to go back to the 15th century, a time when wool production was the Kingdom of Castile's main industry and shepherds moved their flocks from one end of the realm to another in order to find the best supplies of grass. In 1418, the leading shepherds' organization signed an agreement with the elders of Madrid that guaranteed their right to traverse the city with their flocks during the biannual trek, or trashumancia. Six hundred or so years later, that agreement remains intact, which is why a vast herd of sheep was running through the center of Madrid on Sunday.

Today, that ancient agreement is largely symbolic: although some of Spain's sheep still move from pasture to pasture, they tend to do it by truck, not on foot. But this year, residents of the cheesemaking area of La Serena, located in the western region of Extremadura, are helping revive the old practice. And it's not merely for tradition's sake — they're convinced that the trashumancia is good for the environment, the sheep and even the people who eat what comes from the animals.

"The merino sheep is built for the trashumancia: they're the breed that was doing it back in the Middle Ages," says Isidoro Campos, spokesman for the organization that certifies the area's highly regarded artisanal cheeses, called Torta de la Serena. "We want to revive the practice in part because we think it will make better cheese."

On June 13, with their own pastures already drying up from the summer heat, 2,200 sheep owned by farmer and cheesemaker Ricardo Quintana left Extremadura and began walking to the cooler, greener north. Along the way, volunteer shepherds joined the flock, tagging along for a few hours or days and helping to keep ovine order. When the herd finally arrived in Tolbaños de Arriba, 370 miles (600 km) away in the province of Burgos, on July 19, it was greeted by the entire town, which turned out to celebrate the return of the trashumancia. "When we were growing up, the herds always came through here," said Begoña Diez at the time. "Our parents and grandparents, their whole economy depended on sheep."

The farmers involved are already seeing the benefits of the trashumancia. The lambs born to this herd, says Primitivo Rodríguez, who has worked as a shepherd all his life, are bigger and healthier than any he's ever seen. "And the cheese is going to pick up all the flavors of the grass and herbs the animals have eaten along the way."

There are also environmental advantages. The trashumancia has always been a way for shepherds to raise their livestock on pasture year round, even in seasonally dry areas, without having to resort to feed, which is both more expensive for the farmer and less beneficial for the animal's health. But conservationist Jesús Garzón, a leading proponent of the trashumancia, also sees it as an important means of preserving biodiversity. "The migration of herds north in summer and south in winter is ancient," he says. "And the entire Iberian ecosystem is adapted to it. As the herds move, they help spread plant seeds. And if pasture isn't grazed upon, it dries up and becomes a hazard, rather than a benefit."

But there's a reason the trashumancia died out: it's hard work. Soon after the sheep arrived in Tolbaños de Arriba, lead shepherd Rodríguez realized there wasn't enough grass in the area, and the herd had to be moved again. Confronted with long, uneventful days watching the animals, and nights spent in sleeping bags on the cold ground far from home, the other shepherds gradually begged off until Rodríguez was the only one left. "Kids today think they have a right to take vacations, to go to the beach," he says. "I'd like to go to the beach, too, but the sheep don't let me. Somebody's got to watch them."

The lack of interest that young Spaniards have in traditional shepherding makes Rodríguez fear for its survival. But he might have been cheered by the sight on Sunday of David and Ricardo, twin 5-year-old boys. From their post at the side of Madrid's main street, they excitedly watched the herd barrel through the center of town. "Daddy," said Ricardo as his brother reached out to touch the wool on one animal, "I want to be a shepherd!"