Sowing the seeds of shepherding

Sowing the seeds of shepherding
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The Escola de Pastors de Catalunya (Shepherding School of Catalonia), an ambitious project aimed at restoring and injecting new life into the livestock sector, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, unfazed by the pessimistic views of those quick to dismiss shepherding as a dying profession.

One of the chief aims of the initiative is to ensure the generational renewal critically needed in the livestock sector, as most rural regions in Spain are suffering from high levels of depopulation, with the flight of younger generations to the cities and ageing populations becoming almost chronic trends.

The students, around twenty on each course, undergo two months of theoretical training and four months of hands-on training in livestock farms across Catalonia and the French Pyrenees. As in previous years, the school has welcomed students from all the provinces of Catalonia, as well as other parts of Spain, such as Aragon and the Basque Country, and an ever-increasing range of other countries.

Most are young, in their late twenties, early thirties, and have chosen to take the course primarily out of vocation. In addition to training, the school offers its students access to a range of associated projects, including a land bank, a job pool, advice on new agricultural projects and artisanal product marketing.

With close to 80 per cent of its former students turning to livestock farming after completing the course, the educational institution is playing a vital role in reviving the rural sector.

The newly-trained shepherds, whether born or not into a family with a livestock breeding tradition, learn to question themselves and to redefine the mainstream trading model. Talks given during the formal training also, therefore, cover concepts such as sustainability, direct sales, food sovereignty, downsizing (the amount of livestock, with a view to distancing themselves from agribusiness), environmentally sound production, women’s integration into the rural world and repopulation.

Not surprisingly, on completing the training, many graduates choose to take on the challenge of launching their own projects: they want to do things their own way. Differently.

The Shepherding School of Catalonia is not the only one of its kind. The Gomiztegui farmhouse in Gipuzkoa, Basque Country, has been operating as a training centre for young shepherds for over two decades, making it a pioneer in Spain. Other regions like Aragon, Asturias, Extremadura, Murcia or Caceres have opened schools offering official training courses with varying regularity. Spain, as well as France, Belgium, Romania, the United Kingdom and several other European countries, is seeing an increase in both the supply and the demand for this type of livestock farming training.

“As the awareness around what we eat and its impact [on health and the environment] grows, so does the emphasis on producing more healthy and locally-grown foods. As a result, more and more people are showing an interest in covering the population’s [food] demand, as shown by the wide range of projects and support networks that are emerging, facilitating access to land, advice, training, etc.,” Maria Díaz de Quijano, a trainer at the school, told Equal Times.

In Catalonia, a number of initiatives have now joined the Shepherding School in shaping what is already considered the first generational renewal seen in the world of shepherding in the last 40 years. For some, the return to agriculture is seen as a, perhaps desperate, alternative to unemployment. But for most, it is about living their lives in keeping with their principles.

Either way, this renewal, together with the profile of the newly-trained shepherds, opens up new hope for a long awaited change in the Catalan livestock sector. An entire new generation is moving forward with the conviction that it is possible to live without the practices of the agribusiness model. They are ready to transform the links between the shepherds and their environment and the community to which they belong. The transformation is already underway.

 

Eloy González, from Mataro (Barcelona), studied at the Shepherding School in 2010.

Photo: Joan Alvado

Eloy completed his internship in a farm in Escas, in the Catalan Pyrenees. Students from the Shepherding School undergo two months of formal training and four months of training on farms, under the supervision of experienced shepherds.

 

A flock of sheep on the hills of Salau, in the Catalan Pyrenees.

Photo: Joan Alvado

The young shepherds are joining the sector in different ways. Many set up their own farms or projects from scratch, with a ‘sustainable’ amount of livestock. The meaning of the term ‘sustainability’ varies “according to the animal and the purpose it is intended for,” explains Díaz de Quijano. “For instance, if it is for producing milk, 20 cows would be considered a sustainable amount. Whereas a flock of sheep for meat production could go up to 300, or 100 if it is for milk used in cheese production,” he adds.

Another common option is to work as a salaried mountain shepherd, taking care of large herds during the summer, the transhumance period.

 

Sisco Baron (33) studied at the Shepherding School in 2010.

Photo: Joan Alvado

He is currently working on his own project with goats in an urban setting in Begues, Barcelona. The goats clear the weeds and by doing so create safe area, preventing forest fires. Sisco did not want to move to a rural area. His aim was to be able to work as a shepherd in his hometown of Begues.

 

Eloy González (26) studied at the Escola de Pastors in 2010. In 2013, he started his own herd with 18 goats.

Photo: Joan Alvado

Eloy works in his hometown, near Barcelona. His dream on joining the Escola de Pastors, in 2010, was to be able to work as a shepherd near Mataro, an urban setting within the province of Barcelona (where shepherding had all but disappeared). Although things were far from easy, Eloy initially found a job as a shepherd. He then went on to buy 80 goats to start up his own business. He currently plans to carry on working with few animals, in a sustainable manner.

In the European Union, young people under the age of 40 can apply for European Community funding (through the agricultural departments of each country/region) to carrying out such projects.

 

Gloria Rodríguez, a student from the Escola de Pastors, puts her sheep inside for the night, in Cals Frares, Aguiró (a village near Lerida).

Photo: Joan Alvado

The integration of women in the sector is one of the main innovations brought about by this new generation of shepherds, in terms of breaking the mould in what is otherwise a highly masculinised sector. Whereas in 2017, the total amount of female students did not exceed 27 per cent, they reached 41 per cent this year. For Díaz de Quijano, this is thanks to the example set by the pioneers as of the moment they left the school, pitching projects of the highest quality and interest, not to mention the media attention they have drawn.

This article has been translated from Spanish.