Lead image: A transhumant flock [CC BY-SA 4.0 by CamDib]

This article explores the rich history of transhumance in Portugal and Spain.

TRANSHUMANCE : A type of pastoralism dependent on the seasonal movement of livestock herds between summer and winter pastures. Derived from Latin ‘trans’ (across) and ‘humus’ (ground).

Gathering the Flock by António Carvalho de Silva Porto -  an oil painting depicting transhumance in Portugal.
Gathering the Flock by António Carvalho de Silva Porto

For as long as man has tended herbivorous flocks, he has had to solve the problem of keeping them well fed.

Today most livestock is kept confined in fields or barns, their fodder purpose-grown and often hand-delivered to them.

Pastoralism (i.e. herding) is precisely the opposite model: free-ranging stock are brought to natural pastures, feeding themselves self-sufficiently on native plants, their movements directed by herdsmen and protected by dogs.

Transhumance is a type of pastoralism. In a transhumant system, flocks and herds are moved to different areas depending on the season, making the most of nature’s ever-changing bounty. It is derived from ancient semi-nomadic herding practices, but is distinguished by the fact that transhumant herders are part of a settled community, having a fixed abode, even if they do not inhabit it year round.

Transhumance has been practiced in Europe since prehistoric times, reaching its zenith in the mediaeval period.

Some traditional herding routes are relatively short and ‘vertical’ – for example, up a mountain in summer and down into a valley in winter – while other so-called ‘horizontal journeys’ traditionally spanned many hundreds of miles.

Some destinations are chosen for proximity and convenience, while others journeys are made for the sake of reaching distant and contrasting, but complementary landscapes, offering different types of forage or climatic benefits.

Um Rebanho em Sintra (A Flock in Sintra) by Alfredo Keis - an oil painting showing sheep or goats in a shadowy valley. It evokes the long history of transhumance in Portugal.
Um Rebanho em Sintra (A Flock in Sintra) by Alfredo Keis

Transhumance in Iberia

In the Iberian peninsula, transhumance was once widespread. It was once the most common form of pastoral agriculture in the border regions of Central Portugal and the Spanish Extremadura.

Access to fresh grass year-round in transhumant flocks was found to increase the fineness of sheep’s fleeces, yielding a high-quality wool that ‘estante‘ (sedentary) herds could not match. In the case of sheep, transhumance has therefore been closely associated with wool-production, while sedentary livestock herds bore meat and milk.

A herd of sheep kicking up dust as the shepherd leads them up a mountain path.
Sheep herd going up to the summer pastures, Puértolas, Huesca, Aragon, Spain [CC BY-SA 4.0 by LBM1948]

The mountains of Serra da Estrela in Central Portugal have long been a point of convergence for seasonal journeys originating throughout the peninsula. It is one of the few Portuguese mountain ranges which offers a well documented history of transhumance, as well as plentiful archaeological evidence.

Place names relating to shepherding practices abound in the area – many unchanged for centuries; this gives us an insight into the history of land usage. Here and in the Cantabrian Mountains, transhumance has persisted into the 20th century and survives even today, albeit as a remnant. (M. F. Mier & C. Tente, 2017).

Pasture in the Mountains (1861) by Raffaello Sernesi - an oil painting depicting a cowherd and cattle.
Pasture in the Mountains (1861) by Raffaello Sernesi

Transhumance in Serra da Estrela

In the mountains of Serra da Estrela, shepherds usually worked alone, accompanied by the endemic and much beloved Serra da Estrela Shepherd Dogs – now admired throughout Portugal.

They took to the mountain slopes in summer, hiking for days to lush high-altitude meadows. They sheltered under the giant glacial boulders for which Serra da Estrela is well known, or in purpose-built huts – often a combination of the two.

A shepherd's shelter under a large boulder, built of dry-stacked granite stones, Serra da Estrela.
Um abrigo de pastor – a shepherd’s shelter – in Serra da Estrela [CC BY-SA 4.0 by Antoniojosefonsecavieira]

When the first snows arrived, around November or December, they brought the flocks down from the mountains, returning to their villages in sheltered valleys.

Modern day Portuguese goatherd and his flock in Serra da Estrela.
Modern day Portuguese goatherd and his flock in Serra da Estrela [CC BY-SA 4.0 by Sara Jaques]
Estrela shepherd dog or Estrela mountain dog in the snow.
Estrela Shepherd Dog in the snow [CC BY-SA 4.0 by Chokingvictm]

The arrival of the winter snows offered the shepherds no respite, however. While a handful of animals owned by poorer individuals would overwinter in valley pastures near the villages, the majority – large herds owned by wealthy stock-owners – would undertake winter transhumance.

The stock-owners paid locals shepherds to drive their herds on lengthy migrations to distant invernada (winter grazing areas) over 100km away.

Regional tradition determined the shepherds’ destinations. Travelling around 20km a day, those from the northeast slopes of Estrela headed to the Douro Valley; those from the western slope were bound for the Tejo Basin, while the central mountain villages preferred the Mondego basin and Coimbra’s fertile lowlands (M. F. Mier & C. Tente, 2017).

They followed traditional droving routes (canadas), some of which became well developed. Many of these traced the paths of ancient Roman roads. They were traditionally marked with cairns (mariolas) to guide the shepherds. A good number were lost but some still exist and can be followed today – although some have been developed into modern-day tarmac roads.

Around 1.500 to 3.000 head of livestock would gather in each of these summer pastures, accompanied by shepherds from the mountains at proportions of about 1,500 sheep for more than 20 men and 7 to 8 dogs. They brought with them donkeys carrying blankets, kitchen utensils and hammocks. (C. Carvalho & T. P. Marques, 2020)

A map showing regions for winter migrations from Serra da Estrela, giving an outline of transhumance practices in central Portugal.
Regions for winter migrations from Serra da Estrela. Origin zones in Serra da Estrela are highlighted in block colours, while the corresponding invernadas are shown in coloured outlines.

The emergence of these traditional transhumant journeys is hard to pin down, but it is thought that they were well-established by 12th century. Before this time, Serra da Estrela was thickly forested with ancient oak, birch and willow woodlands – only a fragment of which remain today.

As in many parts of Europe, large-scale forest clearance began in the early mediaeval period, creating additional grazing on the expansive heathlands which characterise the Serra da Estrela of today. However, it is speculated that some form of transhumant herding had been of economic importance in the area long before this – possibly since 1000 AD.

The preservation of these ancient practices until the modern day is largely due the communal way of life in the Serra da Estrela mountain range – founded on the enduring notion that the needs of the community are of greater importance than those of the individual.

The continuing economic significance of cheese and wool production in Serra da Estrela has also contributed the endurance of the transhumant shepherding tradition. Although like many old ways of life, this is now threatened by depopulation and ageing communities.

Valley Transhumance in Peneda-Gerês

In the Peneda-Gerês mountains in the north of Portugal, the most common type of transhumant journey was a seasonal shift in altitude termed ‘valley transhumance’. Much like in Serra da Estrela, shepherds took advantage of the flowering highlands from Easter onwards, when the snow began to thaw, but retreated to their villages in sheltered valleys in winter, where stock grazed the nearby meadows.

Although these shorter journeys could be undertaken by a couple of shepherds alone, in Peneda-Gerês it was not uncommon for many individuals in a village to accompany the flocks up the mountainside in spring, taking up residence in brandas (summer settlements at 1000m or more above sea level).

At Christmas, when snow began to settle on the mountaintops, they would return to the inverneiras (winter villages) where infrastructure was better suited to weathering the cold. These practices related mainly to cattle, but also smaller quantities of sheep and goats.

An elderly couple herding cattle in Caçarelhos, Vimioso, Northern Portugal.
Herding cattle in Caçarelhos, Vimioso, Northern Portugal [CC BY-SA 2.5 by Dantadd]

Rich oral and written histories have been recorded describing these transhumant traditions. The ‘double-life’ led by transhumant communities was celebrated by the festivals held at summer brandas, where the shepherds whose flocks grazed nearby, their families and other branda residents, gathered together for company and merrymaking.

The seasonal upward migration was not motivated by herding alone. These movements were part of a more complex system of farming and gathering which took advantage of the different types of terrain and flora found at various altitudes.

Throughout the highlands of Peneda-Gerês, one can still find many abrigos de pastor – conical huts of dry-stacked granite where herdsmen spent the night or waited out foul weather. They would pass time in these summer shelters, watching over both their own or neighbours’ animals. Before too long they may have been relieved, returning to the branda to undertake other tasks while another took over the communal shepherding duties.

A shepherd's shelter in Peneda-Gerês.
Abrigo de Pastor [CC BY-SA 4.0 by Sara Jaques]

Transhumance in Spain

In Spain, vast tracts of grazing land were appropriated by the church, the crown and town councils (concejos). The high value of wool in the mediaeval period meant that shepherding and extensive farming took precedence over other forms of agriculture, often leading to conflict between farmers and herders (C. Carvalho & T. P. Marques, 2020).

From the 10th century onwards, Cantabrian monasteries began to acquire pastureland and the associated summer settlements (M. F. Mier & C. Tente, 2017). Owning livestock and exercising control over large areas of high-altitude grazing brought representatives of the church increased wealth, leverage and power. They focussed on cattle herding and, through land acquisition and grazing agreements, engineered transhumant routes connecting peaks and lowlands throughout Spain and Portugal.

Throughout the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, the concejos, also developed their interest in pastoralism. They too contended to establish ownership and grazing rights, resulting in complex networks of transhumance systems mirroring those developed by the monasteries.

A Spanish Shepherd (1863) by Richard Ansdell - oil painting depicting a shepherd with his flock. He walks a donkey who carries lambs in panniers.
A Spanish Shepherd (1863) by Richard Ansdell

In Span, the herds, their routes, pastures and shepherds’ rights were protected by a powerful royal association of livestock owners known as ‘La Mesta’. This was a government body somewhat similar to a merchants’ guild, although its purpose was merely to facilitate the activities of shepherds rather than to engage directly in their business.

The systems and agreements put in place to determine boundaries, ownership, grazing rights, taxation and management practices were extremely complex and the association helped to document and keep track of these.

Common Pastures in Portugal

The smaller Portuguese equivalent of La Mesta were the rafalas, however in Portugual, shepherds benefitted from the law of compáscuo – or the right to graze specified tracts of communal or uncultivated land. This right was revoked in 1867, but in some places, such as Serra da Estrela, the Portuguese Forestry Commission still maintains the rights of local inhabitants to graze their flocks on the uncultivated tracts, as well as to gather firewood, gravel, stone and manure.

Long-Distance Transhumance in Spain

Black and white photo of sheep under an aqueduct in Segóvia, Spain.
The aqueduct in Segóvia with transhumant sheep flocks, 1930

When it was time to take the livestock to market many Spanish shepherds undertook journeys of hundreds of miles, with herds being sold at their final destination. This transhumance was usually along south/north or north/south routes.

Over time, the routes they followed were developed into substantial droving trails – called Cañadas Reales. The trails, many of which are still in use today, could be as large as 75m wide and 800km long, passing through many types of landscape and terrain. They were under the protection of La Mesta and were subject to tolls.

At the peak of long-distance transhumance practices, between 1790 and 1795, over 5 million sheep took to the trails each year in Spain alone, not to mention other types of livestock.

Many would find their way to Portugal – ending their journeys in Serra da Estrela, Ourique in Alentejo or Idanha.

In Serra da Estrela a little-known but lovely spot called ‘Nave da Mestra’ is thought to have once sheltered transhumant ‘Mesta’ livestock from Spain.

Nave da Mestra, Serra da Estrela - a shepherd's shelter.
Nave da Mestra, Serra da Estrela [CC BY-SA 4.0 by Dulundum]

Transhumance as a Vehicle for Culture

A mixed flock of sheep and goats on a cobbled street in Videmonte, Guarda, Portugal.
A mixed flock of sheep and goats in Videmonte, Guarda [CC BY-SA 4.0 by Hipersyl]

More than the herds followed the shepherds on their journeys. They carried their culture with them – a wealth of songs, dances, fabrics, food and folklore that, no matter where they journeyed, linked them inextricably with their place of origin.

These cultural fragments were shared between shepherds on the trail, travelling with them from region to region and contributing to a rich tapestry of customs, heritage and tradition that helped to shape the regions where transhumance was practiced.

As well as these intangible aspects, transhumance has left a persistent physical mark on the landscape. Architecture, infrastructure and management all attest to the several thousand-year-old history of transhumance in Iberia. But also chapels, shrines and rock carvings left by shepherds – which show how individuals related their occupation to their faith and were moved by it.

Native Breeds

Hardy and well-adapted to both the climate and topography of their place of origin, native breeds are still favoured for modern day transhumance practices. Many are all-weather, all-terrain animals, physically capable of undertaking the journeys required of them.

Furthermore, they generally retain traces of their ancestors’ wild instincts: a valuable trait at night on the mountainside where wolves may prowl, but one that has often led to conventional farmers to label rustic breeds ‘stubborn’, ‘intractable’ or even ‘aggressive’, in comparison to the dumb, docile and easily-pleased personalities better suited to the modern farm.

A Barrosa cattle steer showing just how intractable he can be at a village cattle show near Boticas - he resist's the cowherd's lasso.
A Barrosa steer showing just how intractable he can be at a village cattle show near Boticas. (Copyright Caminho de Cabras)

Commercial breeds may well offer superior yields within the intensive farming systems for which they were created, but most would struggle in a transhumant flock. Transhumant breeds make the most of rough and marginal land; they are naturally athletic and strengthened by constant movement.

>>> Read about native goat breeds in Portugal

The Future of Transhumance in Iberia

The future of transhumance in Iberia is uncertain. Many of the original reasons for undertaking it have faded from relevance; motorised transport can quickly bring hundreds of animals to market and most native breeds are now endangered.

There may still be a place for transhumance as an ecological form of landscape management, and many of the advantages still hold up well against the limitations. However, radical changes to the landscape such as impassable infrastructure (vast tracts of fencing, busy motorways, large towns), not to mention the risk of overgrazing on evesmaller tracts of wild land, could make it difficult to find a place for it in the modern wold.

Nevertheless, knowledge should never be discarded. Traditional ways of life have much to teach us and it is imperative that the know-how of transhumance should be brought forward with us, that we may try to unravel and understand it before it is lost for good. Practical knowledge can only be preserved through practice – furthermore, it must be allowed to develop and flourish if it is to remain in-tact and relevant.

We must therefore find ways to balance the social, economic and environmental changes that threaten traditional ways of life such as transhumance with practical solutions that offer avenues for the preservation of these practices. Ideally not only preservation, but also continuation – allowing for successful adaptation to current conditions.

Below are some points for thought…

Pros

  • Wild land can be grazed for free in key areas
  • Natural movement keeps domestic animals fit
  • Transhumance eliminates micro-management (e.g. growing crops; transporting, storing and preparing food; cleaning housing areas, etc.)
  • Free-ranging livestock typically carry and ingest fewer parasites
  • The flavour of meat, milk and cheeses is noticeably improved by grazing wild flowers and herbs; the quality of wool and leather is also said to be far superior in transhumant herds
  • Herbivores learn the flavour and scent-profiles of beneficial plants through experience, meaning that ranging livestock are more likely to self-select wild herbs which confer medicinal benefits (e.g. pain relief, parasite reduction, mineral and vitamin content, etc.)
  • Wide variety of diet reduces the likelihood of nutritional deficiency
  • Practiced within reasonable limits, transhumance works with natural landscapes instead of against them. Grazing livestock can in some instances fill the ecological niche of vanished wild species, such as the rare Iberian ibex, wild horses or extinct aurochs.

Cons

  • Transhumance is generally incompatible with modern commercial breeds
  • Overgrazing can cause landscape degeneration
  • Modern infrastructure has obstructed traditional droving routes, making it harder to practice
  • It is a lonely and poorly-paid lifestyle choice which does not appeal to many
  • Traditional breeds raised through transhumance may have lower yields or greater losses than intensively farmed commercial breeds
  • Greatly affected by changing conditions and natural disasters, for example climate change, floods, wildfire and drought
  • European regulations on the movement of livestock make it harder to practice
  • A vast reduction in the expanse of wild places and natural habitats means that transhumant grazing may in some places threaten rare habitats and floral species which were formerly common
  • Transhumance has historically been associated with deforestation for the creation of pastureland.
  • Ranging livestock can in some cases increase the incidence of disease in wild animal populations (for example mange outbreaks in Iberian Ibex in Spain).
Two native Cachena cows and calf in the Peneda-Gerês National Park
Two native Cachena cows and calf in the Peneda-Gerês National Park (copyright Caminho Caprino)

Resources

>>> Transhumance Trails & Rural Roads

>>> Transumancia.com

>>> Terras de Transhumância

Further Reading

M. F. Mier & C. Tente (2017) Transhumant Herding Systems in Iberia

A. F. Carvalho & C. Tente, Orlando Ribeiro’s work on the pastoralism of central-northern Portugal: Guidelines for a research project on ethno-history and archaeology

C. Carvalho & T. P. Marques (2020) Paisagem Cultural De Transumância: a Rota Da Serra Da Estrela Para as Campinas De Idanha

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