Transhumance in the 21st Century – a social & ecological model

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By Seona Anderson

The Dehesa San Francisco is one of the most inspiring places I have ever visited. The thought, energy and vision which drive the work also supports a wide diversity of people, animals, and plants on this landscape. Ernestine Lüdeke, her team and her partners in the region are an example of what can be achieved is there is the ambition to try. It was also inspiring to be part of a diverse group of participants from Scotland who shared their own knowledge freely and with enthusiasm. We had many long discussions on what could be tried or improved in Scottish land management, organic farming, agro-forestry and training.

During our visit we had the opportunity to see many aspects of direct land management at the Dehesa, to visit food, cork and wool producers, representatives of a sheep cooperative, an organic olive oil producer, and to meet a range of people connected with the farm. We also had time to spend experiencing the range of plants, birds and animals on the farm. However the element of the visit which struck me most was the transhumance restoration project which Ernestine is working on with a range of partners in southern and northern Spain.

Transhumance & the Impacts of its Decline

Transhumance is an ancient practice of moving animals between regions to benefit from the best grazing at the best time of year. Transhumance of the Merino sheep, by walking them from Andulacia to the north of Spain during the summer, was commonly practiced until the 1960s and 70s. The loss of this transhumance has impacts in both Andalusia and the north. In Andalusia the sheep remain on the same ground throughout the year which increases the pressure on the available grazing and is detrimental to the soil. In the north the lack of annual grazing has led to abandonment of pastures, which are infilled with continuous forest or scrub cover, which lowers biodiversity and increases the risk of fire.

Restoring Transhumance

Ernestine has been working with many partners in the south and north to restore transhumance since 2009. Last year their group transported 5,000 sheep from 8 farms in Andulacia to 6 villages in the north of Spain. The project is demonstrating to the farmers in the south and to the villages in the north the benefits of restoring this system for the land in the south and for fire prevention, tourism and cultural heritage in the north.

Grazing Land in the North

The regional government in Extramadura has a long standing legal requirement to give preference to sheep grazing over cattle grazing. However in practice if there were no sheep available to graze the land then it could go to cattle grazing, and EU agricultural subsidies were higher for cattle than for sheep so the sheep grazing declined. This project worked with local mayors to acquire 3 to 5 year leases on village pastures in the north and to commit to transporting the sheep to those pasture from April/May to September/October. 6 of the 8 Andalusian’s sheep farms are organic and the pastures in the north have been certified as organic to ensure that the whole process is organic. The Spanish Organic certifier CAAE is one of the transhumance project partners and certifies the northern pastures as part of the project.


In the past the sheep were walked from north to south over a period of weeks and months. The old pathways are fractured and there is insufficient grazing along the way now. There is also the problem of finding shepherds willing to be fully nomadic for 2 to 4 months per year. In this project the sheep are transported the 700 km north in lorries.

Shepherd Training

Ernestine explained to us that finding suitable grazing land in the north and transporting the animals is a much smaller problem than finding shepherds willing to stay with the sheep in the north. They have worked with the remaining experienced shepherds to learn from them and to help train new shepherds. They have also restored 4 stone shepherds huts in the north with hot and cold water and internet connection to make them more attractive to a new generation of shepherds. During our visit to the Dehesa we met with a group of 30 shepherds from a shepherd school in Bavaria who were part of a skills exchange. As part of the transhumance project they are hoping to provide shepherd training and to raise the profile of the profession. Ernestine talked about a young shepherd from an earlier training project who now worked north of Madrid, as a part-time, job share shepherd and web-designer with another young female shepherd.

The future

Ernestine has plans to increase the number of sheep in the project from 5000 to 10,000 per year, to establish a shepherd training programme and to set up a cultural/tourism walking route based around the old tranhumance paths. From what we saw of Ernestine and her partners we were all convinced of their success. Many people would probably have dismissed the restoration of transhumance as impossible and it has taken extraordinary vision and commitment to demonstrate the potential for tackling complex ecological, social and training problems with multiple benefits for communities, individuals and nature.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from this visit was the way that a range of small or medium income streams including farm products, tourism and training (or combing shepherding with web design, or organic olive oil with horse breeding..), can provide a livelihood for individuals, farms or cooperatives which are based around nature friendly and organic production methods.

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