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Livestock branding

The livestock are branded when they are taken up to graze on the mountains where there are animals belonging to other farmsteads; these brands also allow the animals to be identified when they are herded along the drovers’ road or when they get separated from the herd or flock [1].

The brands are different depending on the type of livestock. They can be permanent such as notches in the ears or the signs applied to the skin using a hot branding iron. They can also be temporary, for example when using paint branding irons or the trimming of horses’ manes and tails. The paint or hot brands sometimes are used to indicate that the annual fee has been paid for using the common land and the operation will have to be repeated the following season, as applicable. Different types of branding have sometimes been combined. Cattle wear collars and cowbells so they can be located by their owners.

For several decades now, the public authorities have required sheep, goats and cattle, including those grazing on mountains, to have a health control mark consisting of a plastic or metal ear tag with the identification number of each animal.

As has been previously indicated, all the livestock “let loose on the mountains” - cows, ewes, nanny-goats, mares and, sometimes, pigs – were all branded. However, some exceptions have been found in the surveys: in Bernedo (A) and San Martín de Unx (N), they said that they did not brand cows and horses as they were easily recognised; in Ribera Alta (A), in the same way as in other locations, they explained that they only branded ewes and in Mélida (N), they pointed out that only happened when those animals belonged to livestock farmers with large herds and flocks; in Berriz (B), even though the sheep are usually branded, there are families that have never done so; in Allo (N), they said that only the animals allowed to roam were branded; the draught livestock were never branded as each owner recognised his animals and they were not put out to grass unless it was in a herd under the watchful eye of the herdsman or driver.

The livestock that was owned by the same family, regardless of the type of animal, always had have the same brand of the farmstead (Larraun, Lezaun-N; Zeanuri, Valle de Orozko-B)- In Bernagoitia (B), they explained that if a farmstead inherited or bough the herd or flock from another farm, the previous brand was respected.

Ear notches. Akatsa

The most common way of identifying sheep consisted of making certain notches in the ears. This practice was found in particularly all the places surveyed except for those in the southernmost most strip of the Basque Country.

The sheep are identified by making a notch, nick or hole in one of both of the animal’s ears. The different types of notches allow multiple combinations [2], so that the brands belonging to two shepherds from the same area never coincide. Depending on the type of identification to be achieved, scissors, ear punches or sharp notchers hit with a mallet are used. The notches in the ears are a permanent means of identification, which is not the case with holes that can close up.

This ear notching goes by different names both in Spanish and in Basque: señalada (Berganzo-A), señal (Lezaun-N and Encartaciones-B), akatsa (Gorbea, Oiz-B), koxka (Ernio-G and Larraun-N).

Cowbells or sounding bells. Arranak, zintzarriak

The use of the large bell or cowbell that many draught animals and those for fattening wear round their necks is age old. This can be seen not only from their great dissemination within and outside Europe, but also from certain articles unearthed in pre-historic sites that are considered Bronze Age tintinnabula or bells. These articles have been considered by some as symbols of lunar and solar cults[3].

Most animals (cows, ewes, mares, nanny-goats and, to a lesser extent, pigs) wear bells particularly when they are grazing in the mountains. The sound made by the bells makes it easier to locate the loose livestock and is particularly useful when the animals are in thick woodland or when the herdsmen are looking for them at night or when it is foggy. In Roncal (N), we were told that the use of single bells was more deep-rooted in the densely wooded and rugged Montaña area and many shepherds remove them when the animals are brought down to the Bardenas.

The people surveyed pointed out that in many places the physical state of the animals are taken into account when fitting the cowbells. In winter, when the livestock is thinner and with poor fleeces, light or small cowbells are fitted so they are less cumbersome in the folds. On the other hand, in summer, when the sheep are stronger and more woolly and living outdoors, they wear bigger and heavier bells (Orozko, Bernagoitia, Anboto-B; Izarraitz-G; Aoiz, Lezaun, Roncal, San Martín de Unx, Sangüesa-N).

Livestock adornments

Collars with chimes and strings of bells

Horses and cattle were decked out with chimes and strings of bells for certain agricultural tasks, and still are for livestock fairs or tests of the oxen's strength and on key dates such as the blessing of the livestock on Saint Anthony Abbott's Day. According to the people surveyed, the adornments were used to show off the stance of the animal and its elegance, which enhanced the owner’s prestige.

Apart from the use of chimes and string of bells, the animals - the mares and oxen - taking part in contests, fairs or markets are groomed and turned out.

  1. In the mid 19th century, Iztueta, the historian from Gipuzkoa, noted the importance of branding to help identify the livestock: a shepherd that found a lost ewe would temporarily look after it. The news soon spread that “an ewe with this or that notch in her ears is in so and so’s flock and the shepherd-owner, would then identify and be reunited with the lost sheep”. Juan Ignacio de IZTUETA. Historia de Guipuzcoa. Guizpucoaco condaira. Donostia, 1847, pp. 626-627.
  2. Iztueta, the aforementioned historian, noted in the 19th century the five notches used by Basque shepherds in the uplands to identify the sheep. They were: "Pitzatua, Chulos, Urcullua, Laiateguia eta Acatsa". He showed a list of 34 possible brands by coming those five notches in different parts of both years. It was a really accurate identification system prior to writing: "utsuneric bagueco adieragarri chit zucena, izcribua sortu izan zan baino ere are lenagotanic Euscaldunak asmatua". Ibidem, pp. 221-223 y 626-627.
  3. J. DÉCHELETTE. Manuel d’Archéologie préhistórique. Volume II. Paris, 1910, pp. 304-305. Quoated by BARANDIARAN, “Los monumentos prehistóricos. Creencias y cultos megalíticos” in Eusko-Folklore. Materiales y Cuestionarios. XLVII. Vitoria, 1924, pp. 41-42.