Just as in the Middle Ages, flocks of sheep and herds of cows made their way through Madrid city centre on Sunday, marking the centuries-old annual tradition of transhumance, in which cattle migrates from summer to winter pastures. Thousands of bleating sheep that had left the mountains of the north or the hot plains of the south, found their way through the city streets no differently than they would a rural hamlet.
“Transhumance is still practiced by herds coming down from the north heading towards the fields of Castile,” cattle farmer Vanesa Sanchez said as she accompanied her cows.
Sunday’s festival is “a reminder that Madrid was and still is on a transhumance pathway,” she said as shepherds whistled around her, directing their livestock down Madrid’s historic avenues.
“These ones come from Colmenar Viejo, about twenty kilometres north of Madrid,” explained farmer Geronimo Garcia, pointing to a few beasts as they left the Puerta del Sol, the capital city’s most famous square.
Another herd came all the way from La Rioja, hundreds of kilometres away, “using only the old transhumance routes,” Garcia said.
Several of these routes still exist in Spain, criss-crossing the country over more than 120,000 kilometres (75,000 miles), though few of them still serve their traditional purpose.
In 1418, a shepherd’s guild struck a deal with Madrid officialdom allowing animals to make their way through the burgeoning city twice a year.
Transhumance was born two centuries before, when king Alfonso the Wise permitted shepherds to travel his kingdom freely, but without destroying vines and crops.
Every year for centuries, three to five million sheep transited through these transhumance trails often paying tolls to cross towns and mountain passages.
In memory of these ancient levies, a shepherd on Sunday paid a Madrid official 160 maravedies, a medieval currency.
A group of shepherds whistling after three dogs opened the parade that attracted crowds of locals and tourists.
To organisers from the association of Transhumance and Nature, the goal of the day is to help preserve the ancient routes and pass on a tradition to the younger generations.