A resurgence in pastoralism, one of the world’s more sustainable food systems, could help Spain adapt to climate change and revitalize depopulated rural areas.
As late May approached, the animals were growing restless. In little more than a day, the heat from the southerly desert winds had turned the grass dry, leaving Jesús Garzón’s herd of 1,100 sheep and goats little to eat. Garzón knew – and the animals, nervous and bleating, knew as well – it was time to head north, where cool weather and fresh pastures awaited them. Ahead lay an over 400km (250-mile) journey by foot across the Iberian Peninsula through heat, cold, wind, and rain.
Out of the winter lowlands west of Madrid, past crops of barley and wheat, through holm oak meadows speckled with juniper and rosemary, to forests of scots pines, where imperial eagles nest and black vultures breed. Continuing north through villages and cities into the territory of roe deer, wild boar, and wolves, ascending plateaus and descending river valleys until, a month later, they would arrive at their summer destination: the mountain pastures in the Picos de Europa. Every spring and autumn, Garzón and his herd make this seasonal migration, called transhumance – from the Latin trans for “across” and humus for “earth” – a form of pastoralism where animals typically move to and from summer highlands and winter lowlands to take advantage of seasonal peaks in pastures and avoid extreme temperatures.
After being abandoned for half a century, the recovery of transhumance in Spain demonstrates how pastoralism, a livelihood suited to coping with uncertainty and sustainable food systems, can help preserve biodiversity while breathing life into depopulated rural areas. Practiced by 200 to 500 million people across the world’s rangelands – grasslands, savannahs, mountain pastures, tundra, and steppe covering half the earth’s land surface – pastoralism is significant socially, environmentally, and economically. Yet misconceptions and an underappreciation of its benefits mean it has been largely overlooked in international sustainability discussions and agendas.
As a herder who has also been at the forefront of efforts to revive this ancient practice and raise awareness of its importance, Garzón understands its potential, and its challenges, well. After thriving for hundreds of years, in the 20th Century modernity caught up with transhumance in Spain. Rail and eventually truck transport took its place, while many herders intensified production and settled. Long-distance transhumance up to 700km (435 miles) ceased to exist and the network of drove roads fell into disuse. For decades, only short journeys – transterminance – continued.
The end of transhumance in Spain had severe ecological impacts. Abandoned mountain pastures experienced biodiversity loss and heightened wildfire risk; lowlands suffered overgrazing and trees stopped regenerating. It was the lack of new trees that brought Garzón, who previously worked in conservation, to transhumance.
It was a turning point for him. At the time, he recalls, re-establishing transhumance was considered “totally impossible”, but he persevered and in 1993 assisted Spain’s first transhumance in more than half a century. Shortly after, Garzón founded the Association for Transhumance and Nature (TyN), which supports transhumant herders who face legal or logistical obstacles. From the start, Garzón’s objective was to recover Spain’s drove roads, etched over centuries into the land, measuring 125,000km (78,000 miles) in length.
Although pastoralism is practiced in 75% of countries, Spain is the only country worldwide with a network of legally protected drove roads for the movement of herds. But Garzón’s vision for transhumance extends well beyond the country’s borders. “We’re trying to transfer the Spanish example of a network of livestock trails, that herders can use freely, to the rest of the world,” says Garzón.
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