De Atlas Etnográfico de Vasconia
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Even though shepherd is anyone who watches over any type of livestock, this name is used par excellence for the person who cares for, tends and guards the sheep. In Lezaun (N), a distinction was made between shepherd, who looked after the flock of sheep, and herdsman, who tended the other animals. There were two forms of shepherd in Basque: artzain looking after sheep and unai cattle[1]. When surveying Arraioz (Baztan-N), we came across uneia to describe the person in charge of looking after cattle. In the Souletin dialect spoken in Etxebarre, bordazain, which was used for the person in charge of the shepherd’s hut, has a similar meaning in popular speech to artzain, shepherd, but their tasks are different, as the artzain works in the uplands and used to oversee a small transhumance. In any case, shepherd is the person who lives with the livestock and uses it for his own gain.

Aspects relating to the ownership of the flocks and the key aspects of their shepherding should be taken into account to analyse the conditions under which that work was carried out until the mid 20th century. And the situation of a shepherd who was the owner of a small or medium-sized flock was different from that of the owner of many sheep or that of the municipal shepherd, contracted by the local residents. A difference is also made between the position of the person who just drove the flock to the mountain from the valley every day from the one who was required to travel hundreds of kilometres in search of grazing land or to remain cut off for months with only the animals for company.

In general, the owner-shepherd of a small flock of sheep prevailed on the Atlantic side of the watershed of the Basque Country; while employed shepherds looking after large flocks coexisted on the Mediterranean side with the shepherds contracted by the councils to drive and look after the local residents' sheep.

Shepherds with their own flock

This figure was the most frequent in Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and the Northern Basque Country, and was also found in many towns of Navarra.

Zagales. Shepherds' children

Skills were and are passed on in all trades. In the past, that started at an earlier age as children in rural areas were only in schooling for a short period and due to the need for labour to carry out the work on the farmstead. The adolescents who started working in the world of shepherding were contracted shepherds’ boys. In the majority of cases, the shepherd who owned the flock was helped with his work by a member of the family, usually a son, who would thus learn his father's trade.

Large flock shepherds

When the flocks were not very large, the owners themselves looked after the animals without needing to resort to other shepherds. It was unusual for the owner of a flock to contract a shepherd to look after his livestock. The owner would carry out the most important operations, such as selling the wool. In fact, contracting shepherds is limited to certain areas of Navarra and, more specifically, to those places where there has been large nomadic flocks of sheep.

Shepherds of a way

In the past, there were shepherds employed in some places by important families that owned large flocks. Thus, and with respect to Navarra, shepherds on a wage were found in Liberri or Ayanz, in Aoiz, where they worked for two Marquises who owned large flocks. In Lodosa, Codés and Aragüés, shepherds were also employed, given that a couple of livestock farmers had flocks of up to a thousand sheep at the start of the 19th century[2]. In the Elorz Valley, there were families lived off shepherding who contracted shepherds to look after the flock, even though they were already starting to disappear by the 1970s[3].

Paid help

There were times when it was essential to have extra help for the flock and instead of contracting shepherds, they resorted to paid help, who were called morroiak or kraiduak in Basque. This was reported in the Elorz Valley, Mélida (N); Aralar, Izarraitz, Ernio and Ezkio (G). Flocks would arrive to the last of these locations from other areas driven by their owner and his son who usually also contracted the services of a local youth.

The head shepherd

As was seen in some locations, the people working as shepherds would sometimes acquire skills to make their way up to the top of the shepherding ladder or become shepherds who owned their own flock[4]. Whoever worked as a shepherd would move up from one category to another over the years: first, when they started out, as a shepherd boy or zagal, when they were still a child, and once they had built up experience, as the head shepherd in charge of the whole flock; finally as the owner of the animals that they looked after. This situation was most clearly seen in Navarra

Council shepherds

Up until the 1950s, it was common for a shepherd to be contracted by the council in Álava and in numerous areas of Navarra. They were also found in some places of Gipuzkoa, although the memory of them has faded away. It is a community procedure to look after the livestock where the local residents contracted a single shepherd to look after the village's flocks.

Looking after hobbled livestock

The system for looking after the hobbled livestock involved the local residents agreeing to look after the animals themselves by means of a rota established according to the number of heads that each person owned in the flock. Even though this method for looking after the livestock was not exclusive to Álava, that was where it was most widely established.

  1. Even though artzain comes from ardi=sheep and zaindu=guard, the etymology of unai is not as clear. Michelena said that it was tempting to see it coming from ule=hair, wool, but that was not sustainable. See Luis MICHELENA. Fonética Histórica Vasca. San Sebastián: 1977, 2ª ed., p. 479.
  2. Severino PALLARUELO. Sobre cultura pastoril. La Rioja: 1991, p. 287.
  3. The data referring to this valley have been taken from Javier LARRAYOZ. “Encuesta etnográfica del Valle de Elorz (III)” in CEEN, VIII (1976) pp. 92, 95.
  4. The classification of the Pyrenean shepherds, including the reference to the Roncal Valley, can be found in Ramón VIOLANT I SIMORRA. El Pirineo Español. Volume II. Barcelona: 1986, pp. 386 & ss