Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Demise of European Mountain Pastoralism: Spain 1500-2000

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Demise of European Mountain Pastoralism: Spain 1500-2000

Article excerpt


This article deals with the evolution of mountain pastoralism in Spain from 1500 to 2000. There were two major ruptures for the Spanish livestock sector during this period: the constitution of a market society in the early nineteenth century and the incorporation of industrial inputs for animal feeding from 1960 onwards. Only the second of these ruptures shifted comparative advantage from the mountains to the lowlands, but both of them created pressures for intensification and the gradual demise of pastoralist segments within the annual cycle of livestock raising.

Keywords: pastoralism, Spain, transhumance, livestock raising, organic energy base


Pastoralism has become an exotic activity in the post-industrial societies of Europe. The proportion of rural populations in total national populations is low, while the proportion of farmers in total rural populations has significantly decreased (Collantes 2009). In addition, changes within the primary sector have reduced the importance of pastoralism, extensive livestock raising and seasonal movements of animals. The life experience of shepherds becomes more and more alienated from the life experiences of the ordinary population. In fact, shepherds find increasing trouble in meeting their basic sociability needs. 'Women do not want this' or 'My son would be glad if all of my sheep died' are the kind of sentences that scholars collect in their fieldwork conversations (Paniagua 2007). Meanwhile, a romanticized, postmodern look at a distinctive lifestyle (one supposedly free from stress and the constraints of 'civilized' society) finds new (cultural) interest in pastoralism (Vidal-Gonzalez 2009; Bieling and Plieninger 2003). This adds to environmental interest in fields such as biodiversity and landscape management. The economic and social relevance of pastoralism, however, has sunk.

What was the historical path leading to this outcome? Of course, pastoralism has not always been marginal in European societies. The classic work by historian Fernand Braudel (1966) richly documents the relevance of pastoralism to many parts of sixteenth century Europe. Pastoralism mobilized labour, capital and land from different regions, and served as the basis for commodity chains that crossed national borders. In fact, many southern European regions, pastoralism remained central to the reproduction of rural economies until well into the twentieth century (Collantes 2006). What were the factors that narrowed the scope for the development of pastoralism in modern Europe? This is the central question addressed in this article. Hopefully, the answers will also allow for a better understanding of contemporary transformation in pastoralism in the non-Western regions of the world, where the economic contribution of pastoralism is still remarkable (Davies and Hatfield 2007).

The article focuses on two geographical units. Firstly, it focuses on mountain pastoralism. This is consistent with the leading role played by mountain areas and mountain populations in the historical development of European pastoralism, as was already stated by Braudel (1966). Secondly, the article focuses on Spain. The Spanish case is particularly relevant to the history of European pastoralism, because this was probably the European economy in which the role played by pastoralism was most prominent during the early modern period (Klein 1920; Phillips and Phillips 1997). Explanations for this are complex and cannot be dealt with here in depth. On the one hand, harsh environmental conditions and low population densities gave some comparative advantage to early modern Spanish pastoralism. On the other hand, a long sequence of historical and geopolitical factors, rooted in the medieval warfare of Christian and Muslim kingdoms and the global economic policy of Castile, clearly played a major role. Because of the relevance of early modern Spanish pastoralism, Spain offers a promising perspective when trying to understand the dynamics leading to the demise of pastoralism in Europe. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.