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Itinerant grazing

Shepherds moving their flocks around is a key aspect of pastoral life. The search for grazing land has always been such a driving need that borders were no obstacle.

According to many researchers in our field – headed by José Miguel de Barandiaran -. itinerant and particularly transhumance shepherding are as old as the livestock itself. They date back to the Neolithic era in prehistoric times and can be found in the geographical relationship of traditional pastoral culture with the megalithic phenomenon (coincidence of shepherding areas and drovers’ trails with certain megalithic expressions)[1].

Its raison d’être is that the grazing land available in a certain geographical area does not always meet the needs of the livestock population during the year. This is down to several factors that are listed below:

The climate and the impact on the vegetation of its main aspects, including humidity, rain, cold, snow, frost, heat and wind. Regional farming practices and customs and their impact on the availability and possibility to access pastureland. Accessibility to the pastureland according to their legal—administrative status, which can basically be classified as private and communal (of councils, municipalities and valleys, facerías [cross-border grazing agreements] or parzonerias [supramunicipal land usage councils] and in Navarra, the ancient Mountains of the State and the Bardenas Reales). The type of livestock: sheep are the most appropriate for travelling over a great distance as they form flocks of many heads that can be commercially exploited and they only need to return to the relevant location, and even then it is not mandatory, at certain times of the year. Other livestock, such as cattle, pigs and horses, have different types of conditioning factors.

Not all the livestock is moved according to the cycles described below. As a general rule, only the breeding livestock is transhumant. The livestock kept for fattening, or reared to produce meat to be eaten locally, and as working animals, used for tasks around the farmstead, are stabled, semi-sedentary and/or sedentary, in other words, grazing on the pastureland in a single jurisdiction.

There is a widespread tendency to consider the cyclic movement of livestock as transhumance, regardless of the distance between the origin and destination, the conditions under which it occurs and the circumstances. Classifications have therefore proliferated which try to differentiate between the groups according to the nature of these transhumant practices. It is not unusual to find in the literature[2] terms such as great transhumance, medium transhumance, transhumance on a smaller scale, mixed transhumance and local transhumance, short transhumance or similar expressions, in an attempt to catalogue the three main itinerant cycles in the Basque Country.

Moving to winter pastures

With the arrival of the first snows, which varies from area to area and also depending on the years, much of the livestock has to be brought down to warmer areas, as there is a lack of grazing and the little that remains is covered with snow. The sheep must be herded down from the mountain and search for winter grazing in the lower parts of the valley, the pastureland along the Atlantic coast or further away in the Bardenas and the Ebro Valley.

Moving to summer pastures

The journey to the summer pastures is typically a short one in the Basque Country, from the valley to the nearby uplands, although there is the peculiarity of the Urbasa and Andia mountains ranges in Navarra. The more moderate temperature and the persistent humidity summer means that the conditions upland pastures inland are ideal for the grass to grow, even in summer. However, the height, relief, orientation and distance from the sea add a diversity factor that makes its mark on the grazing.

Life in the winter pastures

In general, the way of life of the itinerant shepherds has never been easy, with long periods away from home and their families, and facing harsh working and living conditions. These circumstances were even worse in the case of the winter great transhumance. However, it should be noted that the situations vary greatly from one area to area and they have notably changed over time. This change is underpinned by two circumstances: the shift from shepherds on a wage in the past to being owners and the introduction of the comforts brought by motorization.

Winter grazing availability

As has been previously indicated, the arrival of the cold winter stops the growing cycle of the mountain pastureland, covers it with snow and means that the shepherds need to move the flocks to lower areas, where the animals graze on the shepherds' own or rented land. This movement is two-way:

— In the Navarra Pyrenees, the livestock are brought down to the pasturelands of the inland Mediterranean side of the watershed, where they graze on meadows and stubble land.

— On the ocean-facing side, the animals brought down to the Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa coasts and in the Pyrenees in the Northern Basque Country (lying within France) towards the Atlantic valleys.

  1. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. “Contribución al estudio de los establecimientos humanos y zonas pastoriles del País Vasco” in AEF, VII (1927) p. 141.
  2. Julio CARO BAROJA. Los Vascos. San Sebastián: 1949, pp. 220 & ss. Fermín LEIZAOLA. “Aspectos de la vida pastoril y trashumancia en el País Vasco” in Primera Semana Internacional de Antropología. Bilbao: 1971, pp. 535-536. Alfredo FLORISTÁN. La Merindad de Estella en la Edad Moderna: los hombres y la tierra. Pamplona: 1982, pp. 219-221. Théodore LEFÈBVRE. Les modes de vie dans les Pyrénées atlantiques orientales. Paris: 1933, pp. 478 & ss.