IN PICS: Why thousands of sheep take over Madrid for one day every year

Tourists and residents lined the streets of Spain’s capital on Sunday to watch as a bleating, bell-clanking parade passed through Madrid’s most emblematic locations. But how did this bizarre tradition come about?

IN PICS: Why thousands of sheep take over Madrid for one day every year
Shepherds guided a flock of around 1,200 sheep and 200 goats through the streets of Madrid on Sunday in defence of ancient grazing and migration rights increasingly threatened by urban sprawl. (Photos by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Every year since 1994, sheep farmers have paraded their livestock through Madrid along a route that once cut through undeveloped countryside on their way to winter grazing pastures in southern Spain.

It’s known as la Fiesta de la Trashumancia. Transhumance is a type of pastoralism which involves the seasonal movement of livestock between summer and winter pastures.

Since mediaeval times, Spanish shepherds have had the right to use herding paths crisscrossing a landscape that was once woodland and grazing space.

A law passed almost three decades ago looked to guarantee that Spain’s pastores could continue to use these ravines and natural paths as public domain for nomadic purposes.

La Fiesta de la Trashumancia acts as a reminder of this law and a chance to demand more financial help for rural Spain and the preservation of cattle trails, as growing urbanisation threatens herders’ ability to carry out the ancient practice. 

Transhumance not only acts as a means of providing work for rural populations, it also helps to reduce the risk of wildfires as livestock clear vegetation in an environmentally friendly way, as well as contributing to nature’s regeneration given that livestock carry seeds and spores in their hooves.

READ ALSO: Why Barcelona is recruiting sheep and goats to fight wildfires

2022’s edition was made up of 1,200 sheep and 200 goats, which on the morning of Sunday October 23rd brought traffic in central Madrid to a standstill, leaving tourists and residents to watch in awe as these unconventional day visitors took over the streets.   

The parade always starts in the Casa de Campo, a former royal hunting ground that is now Madrid’s largest park, then it usually makes its way through the Puerta del Sol — the main square — but construction work meant that this year el rebaño (the herd) went through Madrid’s equally emblematic Plaza Mayor, followed by other well-known squares such as Plaza de Jacinto Benavente, Plaza de Canalejas, Plaza de Cibeles and Plaza de Colón. 

The herd was accompanied by musicians and dancers dressed in regional costumes that have been worn by rural workers for centuries.   

The tradition then sees shepherds stop at Madrid’s city hall so that the chief herdsman can hand local authorities 50 “maravedies” — copper coins first minted in the 11th century — as payment for the crossing.

Farmers in Spain are struggling more than ever as a result of spiralling inflation caused by the war in Ukraine. The rise in energy and raw material costs has meant many are no longer making any form of profit and are in fact incurring losses, forcing them to sacrifice some of their livestock. 

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Spanish reservoirs fill up to highest level since last May

After one of the worst droughts in Spain this summer, the good news is that the country’s reservoirs are filling up again and are now already at 50 percent of their capacity.

Spanish reservoirs fill up to highest level since last May

The water levels of Spanish reservoirs continue to rise and are already at 50.9 percent of their capacity, the latest data reveals, a figure that has not been seen since May 2022.

Storms and rainfall in recent weeks have caused water reserves to increase to 28,533 cubic hectometres.

Statistics show water levels have risen for the seventh consecutive week and continue to improve on the previous week too. 

There is also a great improvement compared to the same week of 2022, when the capacity was only at 45.19 percent. 

The current figure has, in fact, almost reached the average of the last 10 years, which amounts to 56.69 percent capacity.

Asturias is the region that has benefitted from the recent rains the most and the capacity of its reservoirs currently stands at 92.76 percent.

This is followed by its neighbour Galicia where levels are currently at 88.6 percent. In third place is the Basque Country where reservoirs have reached 68.05 percent capacity. 

This lies in stark contrast to the south of Spain where levels are still very low. The capacity of the reservoirs in Murcia is only at 25.68 percent and in Andalusia it’s only 29.75 percent.

The latest report from the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge shows that many of the country’s drainage basins are also recovering with Galicia Costa at 94.9 percent, Cantábrico Occidental at 91 percent and Miño-Sil, also in Galicia, at 84.2 percent. 

The much-needed rainfall has affected the entire peninsula in the last couple of weeks with the maximum recorded in Santander of 182.2 millimeters. 

Last summer, regions across Spain suffered from the lack of water and reserves fell to 39 percent, the lowest percentage since 1995.

However, a further study published by the Nature Geoscience journal claimed that the summer droughts of 2022 left parts of the Iberian peninsula at their driest in 1,200 years.