MADRID, Spain – Shepherds from across the world joined their Spanish colleagues to lead flocks of sheep through the streets of downtown Madrid on Sunday in defense of ancient grazing routes threatened by urban sprawl and manmade frontiers.
While every year Spanish herdsmen protest the loss of the routes by herding hundreds of sheep along the capital’s exclusive, tree-lined boulevards and luxury-store-filled avenues, this year they were joined by colorfully attired shepherds from 32 countries who had been taking part in a world gathering of nomad and transhumance shepherds.
Transhumance is the practice of seasonal livestock movement. In Spain, it involves a million animals – sheep, cattle and others.
The Spanish protest, now in its 15th year, seeks to highlight a tradition that has for centuries allowed herdsmen the right to use 78,000 miles of Spanish paths in seasonal livestock migrations from cool highland pastures in summer to warmer low-lying spaces in winter. Some paths have been used annually for more than 800 years.
Modern-day Madrid lies squarely in the way of two venerable north-south routes, one dating to 1372.
A relatively modern city by European standards, Madrid inherited its status as capital of Spain’s empire when King Philip II fixed his court here in 1561.
As a result, the Puerta del Sol – a thronging plaza that is the Madrid equivalent of New York’s Times Square or London’s Piccadilly Circus, lies in the way of one of these routes.
“It’s a contradiction to think that in a world that is increasingly globalized, nomad shepherds can’t wander freely with their flocks due to political difficulties stemming from frontier crossings,” said Benigno Varillas, spokesman for the world shepherd gathering.