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Shepherds and livestock farmers often raised their stock without giving any importance to their breeds in the past. They were very aware that their animals were different to those raised in other regions, but they referred to them as being “local” or “homebred”.

Neither were they particularly concerned about ensuring the breed purity of the animals that they raised. Cross-breeding aimed at achieving, empirically, a better return had always been common.

Cows and oxen

The native breeds in the territory studied are animals adapted to the hard mountain climate conditions, where they spend most of their life cycle. The main breed has been the terreña in Álava, the betizu on the Atlantic side of the watershed, except for Las Encartaciones in Bizkaia which is home to the monchina. Another common native breed is the Pyrenean cow, which suffered a significant decline in recent decades, but which has now recovered somewhat in number.

The first breed of cows introduced on a large scale for production purposes was the Brown Swiss. This was followed by the Frisian, which has superseded all other breeds in the area where livestock farming has specialised in milk production.


There were betizu cattle in Ezkio (G). There were found on the open land on Mount Izazpi. According to one of the people interviewed, they disappeared from the place in the mid 1960s when the pine plantations were enlarged and much of the land was closed off and there was far less pastureland.


In the westernmost area of the Atlantic side of the watershed, coinciding with Las Encartaciones in Bizkia, another breed of mountain animals, whose name - monchina (from the mountains) - reflects that habitat, has been raised there and are still to be found although considered to be a threatened breed.


Another breed known as terreña is found in the mountains of Álava and its strength as a draught animal has occasionally been used as another resource.


The Pyrenean is another breed spread over a large geographical area. It used to be found over most of the territory studied. Unlike the other breeds, and despite its adaptation to upland life, these animals were kept on farmsteads for meat and some milk and were used as draught animals. During the 20th century, they suffered a significant fall in numbers possibly caused by the introduction of the Brown Swiss that were already more important than the Pyreneans in terms of milk production, as well as being used for meat and in the yoke.


Théodore Lefèbvre considers that the breed known as latxa in the southern Basque Country (the part within Spain), vizcaina in Bizkaia and manexa in the northern Basque Country (lying within France) occupies an area on the Atlantic watershed that starting from Donibane-Lohizune, taking in Bastida, Donapaleu and Donibane-Garazi, would include the Aezkoa valley and the upper valleys of the Erro and the Arga, and would extend along the upper south-facing slopes of the high mountain chains to reach the upper basin of the River Urkiola, north of Vitoria.

The territory of the churra ewe is to the east and south of the described area. The breed is known as the Basque in the northern Basque Country and as the ardi xuria around Donapaleu.

There is another breed, the bearnesa, to the east of the Atlantic Pyrenees in the northern Basque Country.

Breeds of the Mediterranean watershed

Ewes of other breeds, and particularly the churras and merinas, have been raised in the transition area between the Atlantic and Mediterranean sides of the watershed and where there is a clear Mediterranean influence. It should be noted that at least in Navarra, the shepherds use the term churra to refer to any sheep livestock that is not the lacha breed[1].

Nanny goats

The majority of the people interviewed referred to nanny goats as being “homebred”. In general, they were unable to give a specific name to the animals and at most they gave a physical description, with most importance being given to the colour of the coat. It is therefore difficult to identify them by breeds.


The pig has been such an important animal in the domestic economy that emphasis has always been placed from earliest times on improving the animals by crossbreds or introducing new breeds. To a large extent, such practices make it hard to classify the animals bred in the territory studied.

The breed that was most often cited by the people we interviews is the Álaves or Chato Vitoriano.

Mares, donkeys and mules

The pottoka breed stands out among the mares that ranged freely on the uplands in the Atlantic side of the watershed. In some upland areas, they were bred and continue to be bred as pure bloodlines and in others they have been crossed with different breeds in order to improve their features. This, at times, has led to its disappearance as that breed or at least to an important transformation.

Hens, doves, ducks and other poultry

Hens are mentioned in nearly all the surveys. They are animals that, with a little effort and low costs, produce one of the most prized food items, eggs. The meat of these animals, and particularly the stock made using it, has been considered an excellent restorative for convalescents and was often given as a gift to the sick and new mothers.

Other small animals: rabbits, dogs and cats

The people surveyed did not know the breeds of the rabbits they had owned and when asked they answered saying they were local rabbits or those they had always raised. In addition, reference was made to the phenotypic variability of those animals.

In the past, dogs were usually kept for a practical purpose, such as herding the livestock, protecting the home, controlling rodent infestations or used by their owners when hunting. Dogs subsequently began to be kept only for their company, even though that is still more typical of urban than rural areas.

Cats were frequently kept in all homes and their main task was to kill small rodents.

  1. Luis de la TORRE; Mª Dolores DÍAZ; Carmen URSUA. Enciclopedia de Navarra. Ganadería. Theme IV. Pamplona, 1987, p. 159.