The goat is not stupid... Wandering with shepherds through Spain

Although the goats leading the herd have a GPS transmitter, they do not need it. "They are like a GPS themselves. They know perfectly well how to get back," laughs Rogelio.

How do you find a shepherd in a big city? - I wonder as I walk from one end of the car park at Madrid's Príncipe Pío interchange to the other. I make an appointment with Jesús Garzón, a shepherd, naturalist and environmentalist, through intermediaries. I want to get an inside look at the lives of those who take a shepherd's staff in their hands every day and wander the grassy hills with hundreds of sheep and goats.

"You will certainly recognise him", assures Concha Salguero of the Trashumancia y Naturaleza association, which Jesús Garzón founded in the 1990s with the aim of reviving traditional pastoralism in Spain. An important element of this is trashumancia (from the Latin trans humus - through the earth), the seasonal herding of cattle from summer to winter pastures. "Jesús drives a big white car, but I can't remember the brand", adds Salguero.

When, in the car park, I spot a white car whose wheels and bodywork are streaked with reddish mud, I become certain that the car is travelling through the wilderness and most likely belongs to a shepherd. I am not mistaken. Jesús Garzón, a tall man in his seventies, wearing a beige cassock and checked shirt, puts down his newspaper and invites me in. "Shall we go?", he chuckles as I try to settle into the passenger seat. There are several shepherd's sticks sticking out from under the seat - thick and thin, with or without bark.

We quickly leave Madrid behind us. We head northwest towards the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range that surrounds the Spanish capital. "We rent these pastures" Jesús Garzón points out the fenced-off areas as we speed along the motorway. "And this is the road we take with the herd when we go to Madrid," he shows.

Every autumn, shepherds pass through the Spanish capital with their animals, causing quite a sensation. It is not cars that fill the wide carriageway of Cibeles Square, but horned animals plucking flowers from the city's flower pots. In the Puerta del Sol square, the usually crowded tourists have to make way for the animals. This is not an annual attraction for the Spanish capital's inhabitants, but a way of drawing attention to the importance of traditional cattle grazing for the ecosystem.

About the sheeps that rode the railway

Jesús Garzón took a particularly close look at traditional pastoralism when he was Director-General for the Environment at the administration of the Autonomous Community of Extremadura in the 1980s. One of the region's greatest natural treasures is the 'dehesa', a semi-natural area covered with grass and holm oaks, whose acorns are considered a delicacy for both cattle and black Iberian pigs.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Jesús Garzón wondered why the 'dehesa' was not rejuvenating, and why there was a lack of specimens younger than a hundred years old among the oaks so important to it. In searching for the reason, he came to a surprising conclusion. The only logical reason turned out to be the completion of the Mérida-Astorga railway line. This disrupted the cycle, which had been practised for centuries, of shepherds moving with their flocks. At the dawn of summer, it was more convenient to transport them by rail in 24 hours to the higher summer pastures (today it takes only 5-6 hours to transport them by truck) than to travel there for 30-35 days on foot.

So much so that, in anticipation of favourable weather and the growth of grass in the higher elevations, the cattle - which used to be on their way to summer pastures - spent more time in the Estremaduran 'dehesa' area. In the absence of fresh grass, the animals ate the young specimen trees depriving the area of a new generation of holm oaks.

Jesús Garzón stresses that practising traditional cattle grazing brings many benefits to people and the environment - and not just healthy food produced in harmony with nature. Moving animals does not need, for example, to provide them with feed. "I hear that the government is considering how to help industrial livestock farms cope with rising feed prices due to the war in Ukraine. Pastoralists are not affected by this problem," says Garzón.
Photo by Agnieszka Niewińska
Grazing also has a positive effect on biodiversity. As the animals roam, they carry the seeds of various plants, naturally fertilise the soil (in Spain, each sheep carries up to 5,000 different seeds a day and fertilises the ground with 3 kilos of manure), and prevent fires, which are increasingly ravaging not only Spain but many other European countries. "A flock of a thousand sheep and goats eats around five tonnes of grass and weeds a day. This provides a completely free way of getting rid of grasses which, when dried, are flammable. The sheep and goats are like 'firefighters', moving from the valleys into the mountains to form natural fire belts," explains Jesús Garzón.

In 1993, he decided to set off with a flock of 2,600 merino sheep on a journey across Spain - from Extremadura to Zamora. This was the first such seasonal cattle drive after a hiatus of half a century, and it generated enormous interest. Reports appeared in many media. Television broadcast the shepherds' journey.

As a result, the Trashumancia y Naturaleza association set up its own flock. A public fundraising was announced for the purchase of the first sheeps. Today it moves through the Spanish pastures with 1,500 animals - merino sheep and retinta goats. It holds educational classes, takes part in local events to promote traditional pastoralism, and runs international projects.

"Did I suppose that I would become a shepherd? It was not a distant prospect for me. As a child, I lived with my family in Extremadura. The years that followed the Spanish Civil War were tough. The economic crisis, the poor state of the roads making it impossible to transport goods. The small town where we lived had to be self-sufficient. My family had a few goats to have their own milk. I liked grazing them," says Garzón as we drive along a bumpy road to a remote farm with sheep and goats belonging to the Trashumancia y Naturaleza association.

There's never enough food

The first thing that strikes me are not sheeps or goats, but of dogs. Large, shepherd dogs with massive paws, smaller ones that are very fast and agile, and puppies that are mainly interested in playing. They come up to you, they lunge at you, they demand to be stroked. "They behave like this because we came together. But if a stranger wanted to come near, they wouldn't be so friendly," warns Jesús Garzón.

The fenced enclosure is full of baby goats and their mothers. Some of them suckle milk, others run like mad in all directions, come up to the fence curiously sticking out their ears and still short horns through the holes in the mesh. A few allow themselves to be stroked. The rest react to the extended hand by running away to their parents, but after a while they are back at the fence again.

Taking care of the animals, Javier, an Estremadurian, circulates among the animals, shouting out the management of the morning ritual. He has given the goats names. A senior female with a faded coat and tightly curled horns is Vieja (meaning Old). There is also Tontona (freely translated as Silly, because she has a talent for getting into trouble) Colores, Churra, Muchi. Javier easily recognises the goats. "How do I do it? I have been a goat breeder forever. For me they are not the same, they are different," he explains.

When the young have been fed, the shepherds gather the herd for a day's march. Most of the animals spend their nights under the stars. Their safety is supervised by dogs and the area is fenced off with an electric shepherd's fence. When the shepherds open the fence in the morning, it does not take long to persuade the sheep and goats to come out from behind it. They rush out in search of fresh grass and juicy leaves, raising clouds of dust.

Equipped with a shepherd's stick, I set off after them, or so I think. I am led out of my error by David, a Honduran shepherd with nearly two years' experience in the profession. He points out that instead of following the animals, I am hurrying them along. "You have to stop, otherwise they will go ahead, and the point is to get them to eat. This is where patience is needed," he explains. And he adds that although the sheep and goats eat all the time, they never have enough.

They hear the hen clucking. Poles have fallen in love with the countryside

Last year alone, as many as 50,000 Poles decided to move out of big cities.

see more
Life in the countryside is no stranger to him, he has dealt with animals before, but he admits that his beginnings in the pastoralist position were not easy. "I started in autumn. The acorns had just come in and the animals were crazy about them. They rushed from one oak tree to another to eat as many as possible. I ran after them, and I weighed a few kilos more than I do now. It was very hard, I wanted to give up. I decided to just finish the month's work I had started," he says. Eventually the acorn season passed and David stayed on the job. Every day he puts on sturdy walking boots, a sun-protective baseball cap and, with a rucksack filled with food and water for a full day's work, sets off with the animals.

Rogelio, the other shepherd, also from Honduras, points out that although shepherding is a beautiful job close to nature, not everyone is suited to it. "If someone hasn't even had a dog at home, they are unlikely to find themselves here. It is also important to remember that we are outdoors every day. When the weather is good, but also when it rains or the sun burns," he stresses.

Royal cattle routes

It's not yet 10am and the temperature is already hovering around 30 degrees. We start the day by walking cross-country through an area covered in grass, field flowers, with sparse trees of great interest to the animals because of the shade they provide. Eventually we come out onto a wide dirt road marked by a "road" sign with a stubby cow's tail. "Road for livestock," the sign informs us.

– Hiszpania jest jedynym krajem na świecie, w którym istnieje sieć dróg publicznych przeznaczonych dla bydła. Mamy dziewięć głównych szlaków, czyli Cañadas Reales (królewskie szlaki) z licznymi rozgałęzieniami. Cañadas Reales to drogi o szerokości 75 metrów. Łącznie mamy aż 125 tys. km szlaków dla bydła. Zajmują razem 1 proc. powierzchni kraju – tłumaczy Concha Salguero.

Thanks to this network, shepherds can move with their herds from south to north in the summer and return to the southern pastures in the autumn. They do not have to worry about fodder for their cattle, because by traversing the Cañadas Reales, the animals can pluck the grass growing along the route at will and free of charge. - The network was established in the 13th century by royal edict. It was owed to King Alfonso X the Wise, who thus placed the shepherds under royal protection. At that time, the income from shepherding was very important for the kingdom's budget. Merino wool was the oil of that era, hence the care given to shepherds, explains Concha Salguero.

In 1995. Cortes (Spanish Parliament) passed the law on cattle routes thus confirming the edict of Alfonso X the Wise. "This came less than two years after our first cattle drive from Extremadura to Zamora after a gap of many years," stresses Jesús Garzón. And he adds: "Cañadas Reales is an incredible heritage of our ancestors. The cattle roads are public, they can neither be built on, homesteaded for crops nor sold. The Trashumancia y Naturaleza Association works to revitalise the ancient pastoral routes, and encourages local governments to keep them in good condition. At the moment, 20 per cent of them are neglected to the point that it is difficult to use them.

Following the cattle trail with the herd, we reach the stream. And this is where the problems begin. The animals crowd in, reluctant to move forward because, although the heat is pouring down from the sky, they do not feel like getting wet. Three shepherds have to work hard to cut off the cattle's path of retreat and motivate them to cross to the other side.

While the sheep and goats eventually manage to persuade themselves to march through the water, which reaches at most 40-50 cm, it is much more difficult with the baby goats. Several of the little ones have climbed up the slope. They bleat and call out to their mothers, but can't cross the stream. "Sorry. We'll take them on the way back. They won't go anywhere, they'll wait for us here," Rogelio, already quite out of breath, shrugs his shoulders as he improves his light beige hat that protects him from the sun.
Photo by Agnieszka Niewińska
Rabbit outsmarts dog

When leading the animals across the stream, you can see how important it is for the shepherd to co-operate with the dogs. The larger ones move around the periphery of the herd and protect them from external threats. If a cyclist inadvertently wanders into the cattle path, they can give him a fright. Smaller, agile dogs play the role of orderlies in the herd. All it takes is a gesture, a half-hearted word from the shepherd, for them to run to discipline animals which have taken a different direction from the rest. "Are they biting?", I ask David. "If I told them to bite then yes. But there's no need for that. The mere proximity of the dogs gets the sheep and goats back on track", he explains.

However, there is a situation in which the calls of the shepherds the dogs have for nothing. When they sense a rabbit or a wild boar, no one can stop them. They throw themselves into a wild chase. However, they are usually at a loss. Rabbits in particular are able to outsmart them by, for example, hiding in a pile of branches. But it is not only dogs that are on the lookout for them. When we walk with a flock, birds of prey circle above us. They are well aware that a herd passing through a field frightens off rabbits and small rodents which, coming out into the open, may fall prey to them.

Passing the stream, we head along a straight path to an experimental pasture. Experimental, because researchers at the Autonomous University of Madrid, as part of the European Union's LIFE Cañadas programme, have been carrying out long-term research there. They are investigating the differences between land where cattle graze and land where the horned animals have not set their hooves.

"We are doing research like this in many places, it is a long-term project. We are comparing, among other things, how grazing affects the number of plant species, the accumulation of plant biomass, the fertility of the soil", explains Dr Francisco Martín Azcárate, project leader biologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid. 'We don't have final results yet. So far, however, we have observed that biodiversity has increased in areas where grazing has been carried out. There are more plant species and the land is more fertile. Grazing also increases the population of wild pollinators, so important for agricultural crops. Extensively farmed cattle play a not inconsiderable role for the environment. In the past, this role was fulfilled by wild animals. Today, there are fewer of them and they should be replaced by animals that graze in the traditional manner", Dr Martín Azcárate points out.

Activists fight cattle

Cattle as well as pigs, however, are on censorship. The Spanish branch of Greenpeace on its website asks in the headline: "Did you know that animal farming generates as many greenhouse gases as cars, trains, ships and planes all at once?" And explains that livestock is directly responsible for 14.5 per cent of these greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. It encourages the elimination of meat from the diet. On the website, the organisation provides a weekly menu to download - suggested meals consist of avocados, soya, legumes, among others.

Greenpeace Europe, in turn, published data in 2020 showing that on the Old Continent the proportion of greenhouse gases produced by livestock was even higher - 17 per cent. The Climate Healers went further. In its 2021 report, it claims that livestock farming accounts for 87 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and that the annual methane emissions associated with livestock farming have a greater impact on global warming than the annual burning of all fossil fuels combined.

On the international stage, Polish MEP Sylwia Spurek has become involved in the fight against animal methane. She is particularly active on social media. "We have a ban on advertising and promotion of cigarettes - it's time to ban the promotion of meat, milk, dairy", she proposed on Twitter at the beginning of 2021. Nearly a year ago, she announced that the right was losing the battle over pork chops and broth: "Yesterday, the European Parliament voted down the possibility of increasing VAT on products that are unhealthy and have a large environmental footprint. We send meat and milk back to history!"

Steak from a bull resistant to global warming

Will we "create" people who are genetically tolerant of heat?

see more
She also cheered up when the New Zealand authorities presented a plan to tax the methane emitted by cattle. On that occasion, she shared an article on her social media with an illustration of sheep on a green pasture. She refused to drink a glass of kefir offered to her by dairy unionists because she drinks plant milk to reduce methane.

The most important thing is balance

"People talk about how much methane is produced by cattle, but no one considers how much methane will be produced from decaying grass and weeds that the cow will not eat", mentions Dr Martín Azcárate. "The problem is not the cattle, but the way they are raised. In the case of intensive livestock farming, the ecological role played by animals grazing in the open, moving with the herdsmen, is completely lost".

Concha Salguero uses similar arguments. "Intensive and extensive breeding are two completely different things. Only the owner gains from intensive, industrial farming. Everyone else loses: animals, people, the environment. The animals, which are confined indoors, are brought in soya-based feed. For example, from Brazil, where forests are being cleared for agricultural fields and the population displaced. Then there are the drugs, the antibiotics given to the animals. This is not healthy food. Such production also produces harmful sewage and solid waste. In extensive farming, these problems do not occur at all. On top of this, the herds migrating between pastures bring many benefits. This should be taken into account before using the methane argument out of hand," he says.

And he adds that the most important thing is balance. "The problem for the environment is the mass demand for a particular product. You can really destroy the earth by being vegan, in fact we are even moving towards that. In Andalusia, for example, the organic cultivation of almonds has wreaked havoc, a complete drought in a place that was previously natural pasture. This has nothing to do with ecology".

Just whether we will feed the planet by giving up industrial farming, when the Population Reference Bureau estimates there will be 10 billion of us in the world by 2050. Concha Salguero believes it is possible. "70-80 per cent of the world's food is produced by small producers. The problem is that industrial growers are doing everything they can to put individual farmers out of business", he believes. He also stresses that when we buy, for example, the famous jamón ibérico made from meat from extensive livestock farms, we will pay more than for a product from industrial production, but it will be a fair price. It will also make us think about the amount of food we need and motivate us not to waste it.

Estimates from the EU's FUSION project published in 2021 indicate that the average European throws 173 kg of food into the rubbish bin each year.

A shepherd of gold's worth

Jesús Garzón is convinced that the world will eventually return to extensive agriculture. "It will take time, but eventually we will understand the problem. After all, there was a time when it was thought that infants were best fed with special powdered milk mixtures. In the end, we understood that there is nothing better than mother's milk, nobody questions this anymore," he compares. "Our association continues to convince how important it is for people and the climate to invest in pastoralism, thus creating jobs in the countryside. We run international projects, supporting pastoralists in other countries such as Ethiopia, for example," he says.

Although official figures are not available, estimates from pastoralist organisations indicate that in Spain, herds that migrate seasonally along cattle trails are managed by 2,000 families. Their herds total around 650,000 animals. In the Autonomous Community of Castilla y León alone, the traditional herds that migrate seasonally are managed by around 500 families with a total of 30 000 animals (sheep, goats, cows or horses). In Aragon, animals are driven in summer to pasture in the Pyrenees region. This is carried out by around 750 families owning 250,000 sheep.
In Andalusia, on the other hand, it is 50 families with 50,000 sheep and cows. Andalusians also practise local cattle herding - between the mountain ranges of Jaén and Granada and the Guadalquivir river valley. This is carried out by around 500 families owning 300,000 sheep, goats and cows. "Until the end of the 20th century, around the 1970s, pigs and turkeys were also grazed seasonally. Pigs in the summer after the harvest was completed in the fields and stubble fields. Turkeys in autumn were led to the oak forests so that they would be well fattened for Christmas and New Year", says Jesús Garzón.

Finding a shepherd on the job market is not at all easy. Especially if you are looking for someone who is familiar with animals and has experience in herding. Shepherding still has the image of a profession from bygone eras, requiring sacrifices. Today, however, modern conveniences come to the shepherds' rescue. From something as trivial as a telephone or a car with which to transport essential camping equipment, to solar panels, electric shepherds and portable shower sets.

Transhumancia y Naturaleza estimates that with 400-500 sheep or 120-150 goats the flock is profitable. For a family of 4-5 people, it guarantees a decent standard of living. "We encourage the formation of groups of four shepherd families working together. This allows pastoralism to be combined with family life. You can then share the workload so that you have a free weekend a month, go on holiday with your family for a month," says Jesús Garzón.

Goats often get into trouble

When I return to the Trashumancia y Naturaleza farm a few days later to spend another day with the shepherds, it is clear that the heat has dried the pasture to a crisp. Dry grass seeds are clinging to socks, poking through shoes, irritating us mercilessly. The animals have a problem with them too. At rest stops, shepherds pull them out of the dogs' paws, and they also check the sheep at random. "If anything like this is left in their eyes they can lose them", they explain. The increasingly dry grasses are a sign that the flock needs to set off on a multi-day march. As the day draws to a close, the animals take the direction of the farm on their own. Although the goats leading the herd have a GPS transmitter, they don't need it. "They are like a GPS themselves. They know exactly how to get back," laughs Rogelio.

One of the goats, however, gets left behind. She gets into the fenced area and instead of looking for a way out, she stands and meows. "How did you get in there?", asks Rogelio, as if he were talking to a human being. "Did you want to see if the grass tastes better there? If you don't find an exit right away, I'll see you tomorrow," he continues. We go around the fence, but nowhere can we find a hole through which a large goat can squeeze.

"And now what?", I ask, with the vision of carrying the goat over the fence before my eyes. "Nothing, it will calm down a bit, find a way out and return to the herd. Goats often get into this kind of trouble. Nervous, they can't find their way, but when they cool down a bit, they eventually do. Don't worry. They will find their own without any problems," assures the shepherd. So we set off, following the sound of hundreds of bells, which some of the animals have hung around their necks.

The next day a message arrives from Rogelio. The missing goat has been found. "She was waiting for us here this morning. The goat is not stupid."

– Agnieszka Niewińska
-Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Sheep march through Madrid in October 2015
See more
Civilization wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
To Siberia and Ukraine
Zaporizhzhia. A soldier in a bunker asked the priest for a rosary and to teach him how to make use of it.
Civilization wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Climate sheikhs. Activists as window dressing
They can shout, for which they will be rewarded with applause
Civilization wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
The plane broke into four million pieces
Americans have been investigating the Lockerbie bombing for 35 years.
Civilization wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
German experiment: a paedophile is a child's best friend
Paedophiles received subsidies from the Berlin authorities for "taking care" of the boys.
Civilization wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
The mastery gene
The kid is not a racehorse.