Basque ethnography at a glance

Photo: Fernando Hualde

Last week of May, first half of June… it all depends on the state of the pastures, and how spring goes; but in any case, it is time to leave the Bardenas Reales and head to the ancient Cañada Real de los Roncaleses (old drovers´ roads) with the flocks of sheep, searching for the high mountain pastures of the Roncal Valley. Just as it was done last year, five years ago, a hundred ago, and more than a thousand years ago. It is an ancient tradition and a well-earned right, based on bravery in combat, by the Roncalese, as they were shepherds in times of peace, and soldiers in times of war. That warrior spirit is what made them, in the year 882, the first congozantes (referring to the entities that enjoy the rights of use and usufruct of a facero territory [act between several communities for the use of pastures on land located next to the boundaries of their own territories. In some cases, some of the communities that use these pastures are not adjacent to the farm, or the uses are not only of pastures, but also of firewood and wood], it applies mainly to entities that enjoy these rights in Bardenas Reales, but is also used in other areas), also co-owners, of the Bardenas Reales by order of King Sancho García of Castile (also called Sancho of the Good Laws).

Since then, and after 1,142 years have passed, before the first snow falls in the Roncal in autumn, thousands and thousands of sheep leave the valley, led by the shepherds and the iraskos (castrated male goats or wethers), traveling through Navarre from north to south to spend the winter in warmer lands. Months later, before the end of spring, they take the same route but in reverse. Therefore, during these days, the flocks are coming back to the north. It can be said then that, Roncalese transhumance, although at its lowest moment in history, it´s still alive.

During the past few weeks in the Bardenas farmyards, the sheep have been sheared, and then branded with pitchstone, always on the same side. This is the ritual that precedes the journey through the drover’s roads. The day before departure, the bells of the iraskos are prepared, and the morning of the departure, very early, those enormous cowbells are laid out on the ground with the collars on, in order to place them on the necks of their wearers. The time to leave has come.

A tight-fitting sheepskin coat, a saddlebag, well filled with wineskin and cold cuts, the usual footwear… and a well trained dog, because without it, it would be impossible to lead the flock. The firmly closed corrals are left behind till summer; and so is the Virgin of the Sancho Abarca sanctuary, found by the Roncalese, and whom the people of Tauste (Aragon) took as their keeper. The dry lands and stony roads are left behind.

Photo: Fernando Hualde

There, below the castle of Sancho Garcés II (aforementioned Sancho Abarca), from a location known as “Juego de la Pelota”, at the foot of the Cabezo del Fraile (mountain) and with the background sounds of the screams of the shepherds, the barking of the dogs, and the tinkling of hundreds of bells that the sheep carry hanging from the canablas (wooden collar from which the little bells hang, placed around the neck of an animal), the flock sets off, while raising a large cloud of dust. Something worth seeing. Six days of travel are ahead, six days in which they must cross the Bardena and, through the lands of Carcastillo, Peña, Sangüesa, Xavier and Leyre… to arrive, entering through Burgi, to the Roncal Valley.

In the past, this process took part unnoticed; it was part of everyday life. Today… it seems that this tradition is in danger, reason why these journeys attract photographers, journalists and television cameras who seek to record a form of shepherding that any day now could surprise us with a final goodbye. In the meantime we will say that the Cañada Real de los Roncaleses is alive and full of history, forged over centuries by millions of footsteps of sheep and goats. It´s daughter, a permanent reminder of a profession that deserves much more than a monument, transhumance… He who writes this text owes its existence to her, as we have learned and nourished from it. We have it in our blood with all the pride that can fit in our hearts.

Fernando Hualde – Ethnographer

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