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The sheepfolds that the shepherds set up with their flocks on the mountain were known by different names in the Basque Country: sel, gorta, saroi, sarobe or kaiolar. They are precisely in those spots where the livestock would instinctively find shelter.

The shepherds chose those sheltered spots to build the hut as their dwelling, the shed or enclosure for their flock, the pens for milking and other outbuilding used while they were on the mountain.

The characteristics of those establishments mainly depended on the type of shepherding and the activity of the shepherd.

This chapter provides an overview of the constructions required to look after and raise the livestock away from the farmstead. The best way to do so will be to cover the mountain chains of the Basque Country and cursorily analyse the buildings and facilities that make up their sheepfolds.

In our case, we will begin with the Carranza mountains in the westernmost part of Bizkaia and will initially travel from west to east along the whole mountain chain that is the watershed (Gorbea, Anboto, Aizkorri, Aralar) with the mountain ranges that run through Bizkaia (Aramotz, Oiz) and Gipuzkoa (Izarraitz, Ernio). We will then consider the Andia-Urbasa-Entzia ranges before addressing the pastoral establishments in the Navarran Pyrenees from the Baztan to Roncal valleys. After the leaving the Pyrenees, we will then travel down to the Bardenas Reales and describe the shelters found in the pens of Navarra Media.

A further mountain line will take us from west to east across Álava from Sierra Salvada to Toloño and ending in the Sierra de Codés on the border with Navarra. We will end by returning to the northern slopes of the Pyrenees and will study the organisation of the mountain space in Lapurdi, Baja Navarra and Zuberoa from a rather different perspective.

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Carranza mountains

Cabins and huts

On the southern upland of the Carranza Valley (B) next to the Sierra de Ordunte grazing land, the shepherds’ cabins are small rectangular constructions around three metres long by two metres wide: their walls are made out of sandstone and the only opening is the entrance doorway. The gables support the beam that forms the top of the roof. Other beams, the girders, run parallel to the top one and with the rafters on top. Stone slabs are placed on top of this wooden framework and form the gable roof.

The entrance doorway with stone or wood borders is in one of the gables and, sometimes, is in one of the side walls. The doorway was closed using a stone slab or, formerly, a door made out of bardanasca, i.e., intertwined hazel sticks.

There were no divisions inside the cabin. The hearth was in one of the corners and the rest of the area was used for the camareta, where the shepherds would sleep and which was separated from the fire by a large piece of wood, the palanca, which in turn was used for sitting in front of the flames. The camareta was usually made out of hazel sticks, around 5 cms apart, and placed on two parallel planks. Heather and short grass known locally as pelo ratón [mouse hair] were laid on top. They changed the grass every 20 days or so to try to control fleas; they would reap the grass using a dallo, i.e., a scythe. Hojones or corn husks brought up from home would sometimes be put on top of the heather.

Those stone cabins, which were mainly located on the higher ground of the Sierra de Ordunte mountains, were earlier shared by three or four shepherds; more recently, before them fell into disuse, only one shepherd would sleep in a cabin. They were abandoned in the mid 1960s which coincided with the wolf dying out.

Another more basic type of cabin was built using poles and sods of earth. Two sloping wooden planks were stood on the ground and formed a triangle on each of the sides. They were joined by another horizontal plank that was the top of the roof. The gables were closed by walls made out of clods of turf and leaving a small gap as the door. The gable roof consisted of intertwined sticks known as bardanasca on which clods of turf with the grass pointing downwards would be placed. Some shepherds would finish the roof with a layer of cagolitas or sheep dung to make it better waterproofed.

The pens were next to or nearby the cabins. They were enclosures mainly built out of stone, although they were also constructed using pallets or bardanasca. They were used to keep the flocks safe at night and to milk the ewes when they were still lactating on the mountain.

These constructions were even more haphazard in the north of the valley, on the spurs of Mount Armañón (865 metres). There were built using hazel wood. Two forked poles were dug into the ground opposite each other and a third one then placed across them as the top of the roof. As many sloping poles as possible formed the sides; monchinos, a type of heather, were placed on them and then césperes, clods of turf with the grass facing downwards; and they were topped with a thin layer of earth.

Three shepherds could sleep inside. The most comfortable place was in the centre, as that person could even sit upright. The shepherds on the side always had to be lying down as otherwise their heads hit the roofs and bits of earth and heather fell on them.

The shepherds had to build these cabins every year as the structures did not withstand the harsh winter; they were often knocked over by the monchina cows. There were erected on the highest part of the mountain, on the peak or close to it, on the pasture land. At nightfall, each shepherd gathered his flock near to the cabin where it stayed all night; they did not enclose them in pens. When the shepherds woke up in the morning, the ewes had usually wandered off to graze.