How transhumance is the future (2023)

In Pictures | Cultural Traditions

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Antolín Avezuela


How transhumance is the future (1)

By Antolín Avezuela19th July 2019

For centuries, in the flatlands of southern Spain, one of the country’s longest cattle migrations has occurred. But now, technology is opening up new possibilities for farmers.

How transhumance is the future (2)

View of cattle during Spain's bi-annual migration

Early each summer in the hot flatlands of southern Spain, one of the longest cattle migrations in the country begins. Known as transhumance, this long-distance movement takes livestock from pastures in one region to another with more food available for grazing. While large herbivores migrated naturally before being domesticated, this pastoral instinct has been mimicked by their human handlers for thousands of years.This summer, 547 cows belonging to three different animal husbandries came together to complete the 15-day, 300km journey from the dry south to the verdant meadows of the Sistema Central mountain range. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

How transhumance is the future (3)

A cowboy and his herd during Spain's bi-annual migration

Transhumance is deeply rooted in Spain's cultural heritage, with knowledge transmitted from generation to generation.José Pedro (pictured), 52, has been practicing transhumance since he was a child. Twenty years ago, he started to teach his nephews Diego, 39, and Andrés, 30, everything he knew about this ancient tradition. And this summer, he and his 130 cows have joined up with his nephews and their herds to head northwards to the pastures in the green mountains. In winter, when the mountains become covered in snow, they'll do the trip in reverse, heading back to the warm southern flatlands. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

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How transhumance is the future (4)

Cowboys herd Avileña-Negra Ibérica cows during Spain's bi-annual migration

Migrations are a challenging endeavour for the cattle, who must cover long distances each day, often with limited access to food and water. However, the Avileña-Negra Ibérica, an endemic black cow, is such a sturdy breed that their calves are able to handle the migration at just one week old. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

How transhumance is the future (5)

A cow drinks water during Spain's bi-annual migration

The summer drive is dependent on water, and everything - where to sleep, where to rest and how much distance to cover each day - must be planned around access to it.The herd consumes an average of 15,000 litres per day, plus water is needed for the cowboys and their horses. Since most of the small streams and puddles dry up quickly in the heat, water sources can be very far apart, which means that the distances covered on summer days can be very long. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

How transhumance is the future (6)

A Spanish Alano dog rests during Spain's bi-annual migration

Cows often get lost during the migration, so cowboys must pay attention and count cattle regularly to make sure none are left behind. Dogs are also used to keep the herds together. The Spanish Alano is a well-known sheep dog among Spanish cowboys for its bravery and ability to move cattle. Once trained, these dogs don't need to be given orders, which means they are treated with a lot of respect by their owners, getting the best places to rest and even eating the same food as the cowboys. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

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A cowboy rides along a drove road during Spain's bi-annual migration

Transhumance is made possible by the 'drove roads' ('vías pecuarias' in Spanish) that were created for livestock movement (for sheep and cows) between different regions many centuries ago. The Mesta, an association of sheep breeders created in 1273 by the Castile king, achieved legal recognition and classification of the routes in order to protect them from farmers who cultivated fields adjacent to the route, and guaranteed the cowboys rights over pasturelands during the migration.These roads were made with a width of 75.22m at their widest part and 20.89m at their narrowest (as a reference point, the average parking space in Spain ranges from 2-2.5m wide). This unusual width was due to the fact that the road had to provide enough pasture for the cattle during the trips. Though largely in disuse nowadays, the Spanish government passed new legislation in 1995 to protect the drove roads, which total more than 124,000km in length, which is eight to nine times longer than Spain's current rail network. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

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A cowboy sleeps during the bi-annual livestock migration in Spain

Back in the day, up until the 1960s, the drove roads were lined with inns for the cowboys and corrals for the cattle to rest, but now just a few ruins of those structures remain. With the introduction of railroads in the second half of the 19th Century, and trucks, the traditional 15- to 30-day trip on foot has turned into a quick, one-day journey, rendering the routes more or less obsolete.Nevertheless, the Torres family and three other cow husbandries still practice transhumance along Spain's western region. But now, instead of staying at inns, they must take a more rustic approach by camping each night. They use wood from the oak trees growing along the route for fire at night, and rest under the trees during the hottest and sunniest hours of the day. The siesta is a welcome break for both the cowboys and cows, who after a couple of hours will continue the march until sunset. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

How transhumance is the future (9)

A cowboy steers cattle across a river during Spain's bi-annual migration

While modernisation has sped up the cattle-moving process, it has come at a cost to the environment. In largely semi-arid countries like Spain, animal migratory systems are important to the ecosystem as the cows eat seeds, fertilise them, and then distribute them many kilometres away through their dung, contributing to the biodiversity of the region's vegetal cover. On drove roads, for instance, there can be up to 40 different species of flora per sq m. Without transhumance, the number of species is dramatically reduced.Additionally, when cows don't migrate on foot, they are left to graze in pastures for too long (until they're moved by rail or truck), which leads to the overconsumption of the grasslands and deterioration of the soil, which then becomes vulnerable to the sun, wind and rain. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

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Cowboys wrangle a young cow in Spain

There is some hope, however, as a revival of transhumance and its more sustainable farming methods is on the horizon. Despite the fact that Spain's rural population has been aging for the last few decades and many young people are migrating to cities, there's a renewed interest in these agricultural traditions among the youth, like the Torres brothers. Diego and Andrés (pictured) started with the family business of cow husbandry, and have now expanded into raising sheep dogs and horses. They're also bringing innovations to farming practices through the use of modern technology, helping to shape 21st-Century pastoralism. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

How transhumance is the future (11)

A cowboy checks his phone during Spain's bi-annual migration

Andrés (pictured) posts his journey on [Facebook]( to show others how they practice the ancient transhumance tradition. This also raises the profile of their husbandry, which helps them sell their beef and other products.Generally, mobile phones - and social media - are much appreciated among Spanish pastoralists as it allows them to share their practices and lifestyle with people around the world, and is helping to empower a group of people that traditionally has been isolated on farms. The wider use of GPS tracking also opens up promising possibilities for transhumance, helping to locate cows that get lost at night. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

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How transhumance is the future (12)

Holidaymakers are able to take part in Spain's cattle migrations

Some younger people have become hobbyists who are inspired to help the movement in their spare time. According to Pedro (pictured), 37, "A new 'old fashion' interest is growing strong among people related to the livestock world."Pedro is a technical operator at Spain's largest tyre-manufacturing factory. However, his passion for horses drove him to join the cattle migration a few years ago with the Torres family. Today, he's considered an integral team member, and he plans his holidays around the dates of the bi-annual migrations. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

How transhumance is the future (13)

A cowboy blocks the road to allow cows to pass during Spain's bi-annual migration

Nonetheless, the old guard is still the lifeblood of the migration, keeping everything together, leading the journey and sharing knowledge.Diego and Andrés' father, José Andrés Torres (pictured), 67, is the team's 'support driver'. He travels in advance by car to block the roads that cross the drove roads, so the herd can pass safely. (Sometimes, drove roads and regular roads share the same path, but livestock always has priority over cars.) Torres is also responsible for taking care of the supplies during the journey and is in charge of setting up the campground. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

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A cowboy camp in Spain at night

However, it doesn't matter how old the cowboys are - they all work together. Everyone has their own tasks but also knows that helping each other is the key to end the days with a feeling of accomplishment. As the sun sets, the cowboys settle into their campground, staying close to the cattle but positioning themselves behind the support car in case a stampede occurs during the night.The mix of routine and unexpected challenges can make for very long days, and so the cowboys cherish these well-deserved moments when they can enjoy each other's company and chat and laugh about life. (Credit: Antolín Avezuela)

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