Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Restoration of Sheep Transhumance in the Ebro Valley, Aragon, Spain

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Restoration of Sheep Transhumance in the Ebro Valley, Aragon, Spain

Article excerpt

Transhumance is the seasonal movement of livestock that follows the same routes every year. This farming system permits the exploitation of remote territories that reach their plant-production peaks at different times during the year. Transhumance allows the avoidance of critical periods in each area and the exploitation of natural grazing land at its maximum productive potential (Grigg 1974). Herders practice transhumance especially on highlands and adjacent lowlands: Livestock depend on mountain grasses in summer; in winter they graze on lowland pastures (Yasuda 1958).

The commodification of Europe's rural landscapes is going through a period of intense diversification. The creation of "geoparks"--areas with highly distinctive physical geographies, demarcated by autonomous or national governments--and "Serial Areas of Conservation" is simultaneously promoting and suppressing the vitality of many rural areas by regulating and/or reducing human activities.1 Place certification and the awarding of "Protected Geographic Status" defined in European law and bestowed by governments to foster improved food-product quality in specific rural areas and ensure that local producers obtain optimum prices for their products while protecting them from bogus competition, are contributing to rural economic renewal, as antipodean wine and Irish butter demonstrate (Overton and Heitgen 2008). Elsewhere, traditional agroecosystems are being revived to animate local economies by generating employment, strengthening identities, and maintaining cultural landscapes (Fleskens, Duarte, and Eicher 2009). We contribute to this debate by examining the implications of the Common Agricultural Policy (cap) that has supported the revival of transhumance in Iberia. The cap is the largest budget sector of the European Union. Its activities subsidized and overseen by the European Commission, it ensures that farmers and consumers obtain and pay fair prices for agricultural products. More recently, its reach has extended to various aspects of rural development. We demonstrate that the cap has animated transhumance in many marginal portions of the Ebro Valley. It has also facilitated the reutilization of common grazing zones, enhanced conditions for extensive stock raising, almost unwittingly helped maintain rural population numbers and cultural landscapes via the recuperation of canadas (stock driveways), and it has encouraged conservation by maintaining biodiversity and reducing the risk of range fires. Its revival also has had critical pedagogical purchase, best seen in the appearance of interpretive centers at La Venta de Piqueras, in La Rioja, and at Oncala, in Soria.

In Spain, livestock movements date back to prehistoric times. As early as the reign of the Visigoths--from the fourth century to the seventh century--regulations guaranteed and supported the exploitation of territories by transhumant flocks and herds, giving sheep farmers 'privileges priority over those of tillage farmers. In Castile and Leon the regulations culminated in the establishment of the Honorable Council of the Mesta. This pioneer agricultural union endured from 1273 until 1836 and had a remarkable influence on the social and economic organization of the Spanish people (Garcia-Dory and Martinez Vicente 1988). In Aragon the sheep farmers' associations expedited the functions of the Mesta and developed around the main cities (Fernandez Otal 1993).

Between the eleventh century and the nineteenth century the number of transhumant sheep was large. It peaked in the thirteenth century when about 5 million merino sheep traveled routes of up to 700 kilometers between the mountains in the north of Spain and the lowlands in the south (Zorita 1990). It is important to stress that the origin of transhumant flocks is the mountains of northern Spain: the Cantabrian, Iberian, and Pyrenean mountain systems. During the summer, for three or four months, the flocks grazed the subalpine and alpine pastures, while the rest of the year, that is from October to May approximately, they grazed uncultivated or fallow land and large silvopastoral holdings in the south of Spain. …

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