The Spanish tradition of ‘transhumancia’

Having lived and knitted in Spain, from time to time, I realize how little I know about Spanish wool and sheep. Mind you, I know precious little about sheep and wool in general. For one thing, while the global company We Are Knitters was founded by a couple of Spanish entrepreneurs, the”knitting revolution” seemed to be only starting in the country over the last few years. As I got acquainted with the notions of local yarn producers, farm yarn, indie dyers etc., I couldn’t but wonder where was all this in Spain, after all, we are talking about the birthplace of Merino sheep.

Persistent googling hasn’t quite provided me with an answer as of now, so I was quite pleasantly surprised a few days ago while catching up on Woolful podcast episodes. The interviewee of one of the July podcasts was Marta Bahillo, owner and designer behind the brand babaá. The fact that I’d never heard of this brand is no surprise, as my brief research revealed that they are mainly marketed in the Spanish media as a children’s clothing company – the kind of fashion I’m not particularly drawn to at this present stage. But, more importantly, Marta is committed to source materials and produce her garments through local artisans. There you have it, Spanish wool (not for sale to knitters – or not where I could find it). If you listen to the interview itself, you’ll see how Marta herself laments the decline of the traditional Spanish textile industry, especially in a country with a shepherding tradition that goes a long way back in history.


Sweaters made of Spanish wool. Photo credit: babaá

Note:  To those of you thinking that it is no wonder not many seem too keen to pick up the knitting needles in warm and sunny Spain, I’d like to remind you that the country comprises much more than sun-drenched beaches or the suffocating summer heat of Madrid and Andalusia. There are plenty occasions and places to sport a lovely hand-knit sweater, scarf or whatever you like.

One thing Marta mentions briefly in the interview is the tradition of the transhumancia or transhumance in English. I vaguely remembered hearing something about this in the news while living in Spain, so I decided to find out more.

Transhumance is the seasonal movement of livestock between summer and winter pastures, and, of course, it does not only occur in Spain, but throughout the whole world. Experts seem to relate it to animal migrations for food occurring in nature. Climate differences between different territories lead to differences in the availability of food sources. For instance, during the summer heat pastures can become arid and burnt, so it is convenient to relocate grazing animals to an area with milder and less dry climate. Another reason to change the grazing territory from season to season is to give pastures an appropriate rest period.

Trailer of the documentary series Huellas transhumantes: transhumancia en España (English subtitles) from Domingo Moreno on Vimeo.

This is precisely what happens in Spain, where livestock is taken from the warmer southern areas to the cooler and greener north for the summer months, and vice versa for winter. In the northern mountainous regions, flocks may cover shorter distances to go from colder high mountain areas to valleys or lower regions. Transportation of livestock on foot has a long history, going back to the pre-Roman era (before c. 200 BC). The tradition started to decline from the 16th century onward, and the introduction of the railroad network in the late 19th century as well as the use trucks for livestock transport later on rendered the long and perilous journey on foot somewhat redundant.


Main drovers’ roads in Spain. Credit: De Diotime, Wikimedia Commons

The multiple changes in farming, involving technology, EU and state regulations, the general tendency for people to leave rural areas in favor of urban life have all contributed to the decline of traditional transhumance. Although it is claimed that in curently a network of about 125.000 kms of drovers’ roads still exist in Spain, these roads used for centuries for the transportation of livestock are deteriorating, they are being built on or turned into farm land, which of course poses a further difficulty.

This might all sound gloomy for those who are into maintaining traditions and cultural heritage. Luckily there seems to be a recent awakening of awareness to the tradition and its benefits. Experts claim that transhumance has a number of ecological benefits related to the preservation of specific habitats, sustainable use of landscape, etc. Also, similarly to what is happening in other parts of the western world, farm life and shepherding seems to present a new appeal to the young generations 


The drovers’ road Cañada Real Galiana, western Soria. Photo credit: Luis Fernández García

And, of course, we are talking about Spain where no occasion for a popular celebration can go without trying to make the most of it. The strong bond between urban lifestyle and the countryside and its cultural, and importantly, culinary heritage is precisely one of the things that makes the country so appealing. Marta’s mention of the transhumance evoked the image of the streets of modern day Madrid flooded by thousands of sheep I saw on television every year.

Today, while a shrinking number of individuals keep taking on the arduous task of leaving their homes to lead their livestock to faraway lands, in major cities the tradition is brought to life by the Fiesta de la transhumancia. In Madrid, as tradition dictates, shepherds pay 50 maravedís (old currency used in the Iberian Peninsula) per 1000 sheep each year to earn their passage through the city. This – now symbolic fee – was established in 1418 in an agreement between the company of the Meseta shepherds and the then council of Madrid.


Fiesta de la transhumancia in Madrid. Photo credit: Samuel Sánchez (el país)

And some more…

For a detailed description of the origin, the history and the future prospective of transumance in Spain, read Past, present and future of Trashumancia in Spain: nomadism in a developed country by Pablo Manzano Baena and Raquel Casas.

The website of the Spanish National Transhumance association has a great collection of links to articles, videos and lots of information about the tradition.

This 75 minute documentary (in Spanish) provides a glimpse of the difficult labour of farmers travelling with their livestock.

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