A shepherd continues the ancient tradition of guiding sheep through northern Spain

VIDANGOZ, Spain (AP) — In the sun-drenched landscape of Vidangoz, a fine cloud of dust floats across the air, accompanied by the soothing tinkling of sheep bells.

It is a sight and sound that heralds the annual movement of 1,000 sheep and some goats, as they embark on a remarkable journey along an ancient Spanish transhumance route.

For seven days, the flock is skillfully guided by shepherd Ángel Mari Sanz, a 62-year-old guardian of tradition. This age-old practice, dating back to the ninth century, embodies the rich cultural heritage of Vidangoz and its surrounding regions.

The flock embarks on a slow and deliberate journey, following the path known as “La Cañada de The Roncaleses” or, in English, “The Path of the Roncaleses”. This route takes them through the arid lands of the Las Bardenas Reales area in northern Navarra, where the scorching sun beats down mercilessly.

Despite the challenges posed by the harsh terrain, the sheep persist, driven by an innate instinct to reach the cooler and greener valleys and mountains of the Pyrenees.

As the flock makes its way through the rugged landscape, their presence leaves an indelible mark on the earth.

The rhythmic sound of their hooves echoes through the valleys, while their gentle grazing transforms the surrounding vegetation. This symbiotic relationship between the animals and the land is a testament to the harmony that can exist between nature and human activity.

Throughout the journey, Ángel Mari Sanz exemplifies the skills and knowledge passed down through generations of shepherds.

His keen eye and intimate understanding of the flock’s behavior ensure their safe passage, avoiding potential dangers and guiding them towards abundant pastures.

He is not just a shepherd; he is a guardian and steward of an ancient tradition, preserving a way of life that is deeply rooted in the identity of Vidangoz.

As the sheep and goats traverse the transhumance route, their movement becomes a spectacle that captivates both locals and visitors alike.

The sight of a thousand animals moving in unison, guided by the wisdom of Ángel Mari Sanz, is a reminder of the enduring bond between humans and animals, and the importance of preserving cultural practices that connect us to our past.

In a world that is rapidly changing, the transhumance journey of Vidangoz stands as a testament to the resilience of tradition and the power of nature.

It serves as a reminder that amidst the hustle and bustle of modern life, there are still pockets of tranquility and simplicity where ancient customs thrive.

The timeless beauty of the landscape, the sound of sheep bells, and the dedication of Ángel Mari Sanz all come together to tell a story of heritage, perseverance, and the enduring spirit of Vidangoz.

Modern farming methods have significantly diminished the transhumance seasonal movement of livestock to greener pastures in Spain and several other countries over the last few decades.

This decline can be attributed to various factors, including the adoption of more efficient agricultural practices and the changing dynamics of the farming industry.

Shepherds and environmentalists, however, are actively advocating for the revival of this traditional practice, asserting that it offers numerous benefits in terms of sustainability and land protection.

By allowing livestock to graze on grass, leaves, and twigs during their transhumance journey, the land is effectively maintained and safeguarded from potential wildfires.

One of the primary arguments put forth by proponents of transhumance is its sustainability. Unlike conventional farming methods, transhumance entails the seasonal movement of livestock, enabling pastures to regenerate and preventing overgrazing.

This rotational grazing system not only promotes the growth of diverse plant species but also enhances soil fertility. The intermittent grazing patterns also allow for better pest and weed control, reducing the reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Furthermore, transhumance is considered a vital tool in land management and wildfire prevention. The continuous grazing of livestock along their migratory routes serves as a natural firebreak, as the animals consume dry grass and twigs that could potentially fuel wildfires.

By reducing the accumulation of combustible materials, transhumance acts as a proactive measure against the spread of wildfires, which have become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

Additionally, the environmental impact of transhumance should not be overlooked. The movement of livestock through different landscapes promotes biodiversity, as it allows for the dispersal of seeds and the fertilization of plants through animal droppings.

This symbiotic relationship between the animals and the land contributes to the preservation of natural habitats and facilitates the restoration of degraded ecosystems.

Despite the undeniable benefits of transhumance, its revival faces numerous challenges. The modernization of agriculture has led to a decline in the number of shepherds and a decrease in the availability of traditional grazing lands.

Additionally, the increased demand for meat and dairy products has prompted the intensification of farming practices, which prioritize efficiency and productivity over sustainable land management.

These factors, coupled with the economic pressures faced by shepherds, make it difficult to promote and sustain transhumance in the face of modern farming methods.

In conclusion, while modern farming methods have reduced the transhumance seasonal movement of livestock to greener pastures in Spain and other countries, shepherds and environmentalists argue for the practice’s revival.

They emphasize its sustainability, land protection, and environmental benefits, such as preventing wildfires and promoting biodiversity.

However, several challenges, including agricultural modernization and economic pressures, hinder the widespread adoption of transhumance.

Nonetheless, efforts to promote and preserve this traditional farming practice continue as a means of promoting sustainable land management.

Some sheep pant in the intense heat, their woolly coats becoming heavy with sweat. As the sun beats down relentlessly, the flock seeks solace in the shade of the few trees scattered across the barren landscape.

Yet, amidst the arid surroundings, a glimmer of hope emerges when they catch wind of a nearby spring or pond.

The shepherd, Sanz, has witnessed this struggle year after year. Having trekked these hills since he was a mere 14 years old, he knows every twist and turn of the rugged terrain like the back of his hand.

With a deep understanding of the sheep’s needs and instincts, he anticipates their restlessness and is always ready to guide them towards the refreshing oasis they yearn for.

But Sanz’s observations extend beyond the immediate challenges faced by his flock. He speaks with a touch of melancholy, recognizing that the pastoral life he cherishes is slowly fading away.

For him, these hills have been more than just a workplace; they have been his sanctuary, his source of freedom and connection with nature.

Nostalgia tinges his voice as he reflects on the years he has spent in this rural haven. Every day, he has breathed in the crisp air, listened to the symphony of birdsong, and witnessed the ever-changing dance of the seasons. He has relished the simplicity and tranquility that only a life in the countryside can offer.

However, with the passage of time, the encroachment of modernity and the allure of urbanization threaten to erode the very essence of this pastoral existence.

Sanz recognizes that the world is shifting, that the call of progress is becoming louder. Yet, he remains steadfast in his love for this way of life.

As the sheep break into a run, their instincts guiding them towards the nearby water source, Sanz’s heart swells with a mix of pride and sadness.

He knows that he is part of an ancient tradition, a bond between man and animal that stretches back millennia.

And though the pastoral life may be disappearing, Sanz’s passion for his craft and his deep connection to the land continue to burn brightly.

In a world that seems to be hurtling towards an uncertain future, there is solace in knowing that there are still those like Sanz who hold onto the threads of tradition, who understand the delicate balance between progress and preservation.

And as long as there are sheep to guide and pastures to roam, Sanz’s legacy will live on, a testament to the enduring spirit of a way of life that is slowly slipping away.

According to Sanz, there is a significant amount of neglect in the rural areas, with a lack of support from the authorities. He emphasizes that this neglect has been persistent, without any form of assistance being provided to the rural communities.

Throughout his almost fifty years of herding, Sanz estimates that he has covered an impressive distance of approximately 25,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) while traveling across these valleys. This remarkable feat reflects his dedication and commitment to his profession.

The sheep are led by goats. This peculiar sight unfolds in the vast countryside, where a group of shepherds embark on an arduous journey with their flock.

However, as age and weariness take their toll, it is not uncommon for some of the animals to succumb to the harsh conditions and perish along the way. Their lifeless bodies are left behind, becoming a feast for the circling vultures that frequently hover above.

Among these shepherds is a man named Sanz, who is accompanied by his 14-year-old daughter, Mireia. Together with three or four others, they undertake this annual pilgrimage.

To ensure their survival and comfort, a van accompanies them, carrying provisions and tents for their camping adventures.

The scene is both captivating and inspiring, as the sheep obediently follow their goat leaders through vast stretches of land. This unusual arrangement speaks volumes about the unique dynamics that exist within the animal kingdom.

It is a testament to the intelligence and adaptability of these creatures, as they trustingly place their fate in the hooves of their caprine guides.

However, this journey is not without its hardships. The passage of time takes a toll on both the shepherds and their flock. The weariness of old age gradually settles in, slowing down their once nimble movements.

Likewise, the sheep, burdened by their own physical limitations, struggle to keep up with the demanding pace set by their goat leaders.

Inevitably, some of these animals meet their untimely demise along the way, forever becoming a part of the rugged landscape they once traversed.

The presence of vultures, soaring high above the journeying group, adds a sense of both foreboding and natural order to the scene.

These scavenging birds, known for their ability to locate and consume carrion, patiently await the opportunity to feast upon the fallen. Their presence serves as a reminder of the circle of life, where death becomes a source of sustenance for another.

In the midst of this challenging endeavor, Sanz finds solace in the company of his daughter and the companionship of his fellow shepherds.

Together, they navigate the vast expanse, relying on each other for support and camaraderie. As they face the trials of the journey, their bond grows stronger, forging a connection that transcends the boundaries of language and age.

To ensure their survival and comfort, the shepherds rely on a van that accompanies them throughout their expedition.

This vehicle is a lifeline, carrying essential provisions that sustain them during their rugged sojourn. It also carries tents, providing them with temporary shelter amidst the harsh elements of nature.

With the van as their trusted ally, they are equipped to face the challenges that lie ahead, allowing them to focus on guiding their flock and preserving their traditions.

In conclusion, the sight of sheep being led by goats is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of both animals.

As they journey through the unforgiving landscape, age and fatigue take their toll, leading to the demise of some members of the flock.

Yet, amidst the challenges, a sense of camaraderie and determination emerges, binding the shepherds together. With the aid of their trusty van, they navigate the vast expanse, ensuring their survival and the continuation of their timeless tradition.

But as much as he loves his work, Sanz doesn’t want his daughter to pursue a career as a shepherd, no matter what the circumstances may be.

He passionately believes that being a shepherd is akin to slavery, where one has to toil endlessly just to make ends meet.

Sanz emphasizes that in today’s world, the efforts put into this profession are not adequately rewarded, making it an unworthy choice for his daughter’s future.

Sanz, who cherishes his work and the connection he has with nature, understands the beauty and tranquility that the shepherd’s life can offer.

However, he also recognizes the harsh reality that comes with it. The long hours spent tending to the flock, battling the elements, and constantly being on the move can take a toll on one’s physical and mental well-being.

Furthermore, Sanz is aware of the financial struggles that shepherds face. In an era where technology and modernization have transformed various industries, the traditional occupation of shepherding has been left behind.

The returns from selling wool and meat have dwindled, making it increasingly difficult for shepherds to sustain themselves and their families.

Sanz envisions a brighter future for his daughter, one that does not involve the hardships and uncertainties of shepherding.

He dreams of her pursuing a profession that offers stability, growth, and opportunities for advancement. He wants her to have the chance to explore her passions, acquire knowledge, and contribute to society in a way that will provide her with a comfortable and fulfilling life.

While Sanz acknowledges the cultural and historical significance of shepherding, he believes that it is time to break free from the chains that bind generations to this demanding and arduous occupation.

He hopes that his daughter will have the chance to pursue her dreams without being limited by the constraints of a fading tradition.

In conclusion, Sanz’s love for his work as a shepherd is overshadowed by his concern for his daughter’s future.

He believes that the toil and struggles associated with shepherding are not worth the effort in today’s world. He dreams of a better, more prosperous future for his daughter, one that offers her the opportunity to thrive and succeed in a profession that goes beyond the confines of shepherding.