Spanish Shepherds Protest a Dying Way of Life

Spanish shepherds are staging a demonstration aimed at stopping the spread of development in their home country. The shepherds this week are leading flocks of sheep along traditional migration paths through the greater Madrid area to call attention to the traditional use of public lands.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

To adapt a song from "My Fair Lady," in Spain, it's no longer just the rain falling on the plain; it's the housing boom, too, urban sprawl. Real estate developments are going up where shepherds have trekked their flocks on long migration routes since the Middle Ages. Well, baa! Some of those shepherds have had enough. Jerome Socolovsky has this story.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:

Bustarviejo is a popular destination for day-trippers from Madrid. Every weekend, this small village in the pine-forested mountains north of the capital is jammed with their cars. But on this Saturday morning, another stampede is heading into town.

(Soundbite of bells ringing)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: A flock of sheep is being herded toward the village square, and the celebrations are already in full swing.

(Soundbite of bells ringing; music; sheep baaing)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: A dulcina(ph) band--named after the oboe-like Spanish instrument--begins to play, and several ladies break out into a jig. Not even the petite nun in the white habit can resist the beat.

Sister NIEVES(ph): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: No.

`You weren't filming me while I was making a fool of myself?' Sister Nieves asks. And then she adds, `Because that's something I like to do a lot.'

(Soundbite of sheep baaing; yelling)

SOCOLOVSKY: The village square, where the band is playing and the crowd is waiting, is the last place the sheep want to go, but the shepherd and his helpers whack them with sticks and drag them by their hind legs.

Mr. JORGE ESCIERDO(ph) (Shepherd): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `These people, they get in the way; they think they're dogs,' says shepherd Jorge Escierdo.

The vias pecuarias is a wide band of pasture that cuts through forests, climbs over mountain passes and bisects villages like Bustarviejo. Some of the routes are known as (Spanish spoken) because they were created by Spanish kings centuries ago when the country was a major world's producer of wool. Antonio Gomez Sal, a professor of ecology at Alcala University, supports the shepherds' campaign.

Professor ANTONIO GOMEZ SAL (Alcala University): The Spanish society has changed very quick. Now in this moment, you are new rich, huh? New rich. We forget our origin.

SOCOLOVSKY: He recalls that only a generation ago, Spain was a nation of farmers and shepherds. Nowadays, most herds are moved over long distances by truck or by train. But segments of the vias pecuarias are still used by shepherds like Escierdo.

Mr. ESCIERDO: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `The vias pecuarias, the canatas(ph), are like highways for sheep,' Escierdo says. `They're the infrastructure for the livestock. It's the way sheep would get to fresh pastures in different seasons. We want to preserve this because it's not only for farmers, but also for all Spaniards, for all people who want to enjoy them,' the shepherd says.

He welcomes the hikers and the mountain bikers who are discovering the vias pecuarias, but not the real estate developers who are building right across the sheep's pasture land. Shepherds like Jorge Escierdo want these festivals to remind Spaniards what they're in danger of losing.

(Soundbite of yelling; sheep baaing)

SOCOLOVSKY: For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Bustarviejo, Spain.

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