MANUEL’S SHEEP

Manuel Moran (or Manolo as known by friends) is one of four brothers. They are all shepherds. It has been this way for generations: their father, their grandfather and so on. He does not know another life and he prefer it this way. “Why don’t you go with your sister to a beachside vacation?”, he asks his wife. He knows that she would appreciate that, but he is happier between sheep and mastiffs and would not change it for anything.

Manolo is one of the few herders left in Spain who keeps supporting the transhumance (n. the seasonal migration of livestock, and the people who tend them, between lowlands and adjacent mountains). Transhumance in Spain has been a key factor for the merino wool quality. The reason is that sheep who roam get better quality of grass and that turns into a better quality of their fleece.

Manolo, helped by two more shepherds, moves a flock of 1200 merino sheep, 100 goats, 12 mastiffs, 5 careas and 2 donkeys.

They walk more than 100 km from the grassland to the summer pastures at the mountains defile of Babia, in Torrestío. They depart late June when the weather permits the journey and remain there until autumn.

Mastiffs are the flock protector’s. Manolo has 12! And he is passionate about them. One can see the way they follow him whenever he is around. “There are many wolves in this area as well as some bears, and the dogs are in charge of keeping these predators away from the sheep”, he explains to me.  They are cuddly giants that never fail to attack if they feel that the flock is in danger.

A couple of mastiffs accompany us to the shepherd’s shed, as though they wanted to make sure we got there safely. As soon as we did, they returned to the mountains with the flock. Manuel explained to us that mastiffs do not accept orders. They simply know what to do and nothing will change their mind. “Few mastiffs remain with their original guardian instincts”, laments Manolo. Over time, away from the mountains, the dogs lose its instinct.

The careas are very smart dogs in charge of managing the flock. In contrast with the mastiffs, they do accept orders from the shepherd.

“And what about the donkeys?”, I ask out of curiosity. There are two donkeys in Manuel’s flock. Historically, their role was that of a porter, carrying on their backs the provisions and belongings of the shepherd. Nowadays, everything is carried in 4X4 cars. “So, what’s the purpose of your two donkeys on the flock?”, I insist. “None”, responds the shepherd with a smile. “They have absolutely no purpose. They are here because I like them here. Because they have always been part of the flock. And I am a man of traditions.”

“Being a pastor is though if you compare it to other professions of today”, Manuel keep explaining to us. “But it is easy compared to how hard it was for my father or grandfather…” Today the cars allow the shepherds to go to and from town with relative ease and speed. They can use their cell phones to communicate. And they can coordinate and take turns among two or three of them. In the past, the shepherd was by himself and uncommunicated for all the months he would spent in the highlands.

Manuel loves showing us his profession. In his opinion, transhumance will disappear in about 12 years. That’s why, he is happy and fond to collaborate with initiatives such as Transhumance by Made in Slow. Made in Slow is a platform, founded and directed by Alberto Díaz, whose mission is to preserve and recuperate Spanish cultural heritage in risk of disappearance.  Its main project called “Transhumance by Made in Slow” aims to protect Spanish rural world and the transhumance tradition by bringing Spanish merino wool back to the international market.

Manuel explains that there were difficult years where the cost of shearing the sheep was much higher than what the market was willing to pay for the wool. It was when popularity of synthetics was a boom. Artificial man-made fibers made from petroleum were cheaper and faster to produce. Thus, they allowed low cost production without any limits. On that time, synthetics became “modern” whereas it seemed that natural wool was only suitable for grandmas and their knitting activities. Anyway, sheep still needed to be sheared once per year. And to do so properly, a skilled shearer was required (Yes, that is a profession!). Obviously, no shepherd wanted to pay for that, so they just sheared the sheep themselves and the wool resulted from that was just worthy to throw away. So, many shepherds stopped raising sheep for the wool and lots of them stopped the transhumant activity. That centenary profession started lacking meaning. Fortunately, wool demand resurfaced little by little and so it was wool’s market value. And lucky for us, there were still some shepherds, like Manuel, which were ready and willing to sell quality wool again.

Even so, shepherds that practice transhumance today, do so out of conviction, not for an economical benefit. At Lana Serena we want to support shepherds and their flock of sheep and we also want to contribute to the preservation of Spanish rural traditions and cultural heritage. This is the reason why we buy our merino wool to the initiative Transhumance by Made in Slow, who only sources their merino sheep from shepherds, like Manuel, that practice transhumance with their sheep. Their goal is that shepherds can make a living off the wool of their sheep by paying a fair price for it and therefore encouraging more shepherds to recover that centenarian practice. Traceability and transparency are crucial in our collaboration and we thank Alberto for guiding us to the mountains of Babia to meet Manuel and his sheep.