XVIII. HUNTING VERMIN
The word alimaña (vermin) come from the Latin animalia, the plural for animal. It is still paradoxical that this term has the popular usage of animal harmful to the livestock, when in some Romance languages the Latin root word has formed the basis of nouns used for domesticated animals.
In the past, the shepherds did not usually hunt and they often found it difficult to get rid of the vermin that killed the animals in their flocks. That was reported in Allo (N), where they did not recall shepherd hunting and if the vermin appeared, there was little the shepherds could do as the only weapons they had were their crook.
In Urkabustaiz (A), they explained that the shepherd’s weapons were a knife, a staff and an obedient dog. They never carried a gun.
When the shepherd did carry arms, the reason was more to defend themselves from attacks by vermin than for a love of hunting.
In the past, the shepherds in the Sierra de Izarraitz (G) sometimes had a muzzle loading gun.
In Eugi (N), they said that there were usually no weapons on the farmsteads unless they were hunters. However, one of the people surveyed said there was a pistol at home to protect themselves from the wolves.
A shepherd from Roncal (N) said that they generally did not have weapons, although he remembered that in the early 20th century, some shepherds did have a revolver in their backpacks, but, according to him, it was just to say they had one and for target shooting. Shepherds could not carry a rifle as they were not allowed to kill game.
In Ayala (A), when there was a wolf around, the odd shepherd used to carry a rifle on his shoulder, but that was not common.
The Sierra de Aramotz (Belatxikieta-B) shepherds did not use rifles until the 1960s, but they were gradually introduced subsequently. Some people in the Sierra de Anboto (B) did remember having taken one to the mountain.
The owner-shepherds of Sierra de Badaia (A) were armed, but had their rifles hidden on the mountain. The shepherds would be accompanied by a hunter from the village when red foxes stalked the lambs or kids. In the early 20th century, when a wolf was hanging around, the villagers would go up the mountains with their rifles.
The shepherds would also sometimes seize the opportunities to hunt off the land where they were working and thus supplement their food.
In general, they were not hunters in the Bardenas (N). They caught rabbits at a time when it seems there was a plague of those animals, as according to one of the people interviewed “they were going to perish in the pens”. They used two methods: traps or snares and clubbing them when they were “in bed”, in other words, in their warren. The shepherds needed to approach with stealth if they wanted to be successful. They also hunted foxes as they usually preyed on new-born lambs; however, they never caught partridges or birds, except when they might have nothing to eat.
In Izarraitz, shepherds did not usually hunt and when they did so, they caught the odd hare, bobcat, basakatua, and bird.
Even though the shepherds only hunted on a very limited basis, their relationships with the hunters were not usually precisely cordial. The only interest some had in common was hunting vermin, the first due to necessity and the second for entertainment. In Sierra de Codés (N), it was reported that shepherds and hunters were the only ones to go up to the mountain tops and even though the former would hunt, they hated certain methods that were to their detriment. They did not like the snares used to catch boars where ewes would occasionally be trapped or the tramps where their dogs would sometime be caught.
The biggest problems between them occurred when the hunters used dogs as they often would harm the flocks, the majority of times because they would worry the ewes and occasionally because they caused one to die (Carranza-B).
As regards the traditional ways of catching vermin, Caro Baroja explained that “some basic hunting methods in the north of Spain are closely related to the pastoral system […] even though, from a cultural point of view, they must unquestionably be considered as being earlier than them and used in a much larger area. One of them is beating when the people made a din in the area where there are vermin, which had to be killed for the good of everyone, as they are constant threat for the livestock. The other, which is much more intriguing, is the hunting system using traps. It was sometimes a combination of both”.
Loberas, runs with walls either side leading to a deep pit, still exist in certain mountain areas. They made it easier for beaters to corner the animal when they know that wolf was on the mountain. Hunting was riskier when there was no lobera. Even so, a group would act as beaters, helped by dogs, and drive the beasts towards a gorge where other hunters would be waiting with their rifles.
Much more precarious were the procedures to frighten the quarry using fire or making a great deal of noise. By contrast, other resources such as poison have had devastating effects.
The wolf was the main predator in our mountains in past centuries and the shepherd’s most tenacious rivals in that habitat.
One of the main reasons for hating the animal is that wolves usually kill more animals than they eat and thus devastate the flocks (Urkabustaiz-A). Then there are the ewes who usually hurl themselves over the edge when chased.
- Julio CARO BAROJA. Los pueblos del Norte. San Sebastián: 1977, p. 188.
- José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. “Aspectos sociográficos de la población del Pirineo Vasco” in Eusko-Jakintza, VII (1953-1957) p. 19.