May 25, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

After an hour and a half drive north of Madrid that ended with a long trek on a one lane dirt road, we found ourselves out where Jesus lost his keys (one of many Spanish sayings to describe that you are in the middle of nowhere). We would soon find that it was just us, two shepherds, some 400 sheep, nearly 50 goats, and a handful of dogs.

Our first stop was the corral where we were greeted by around 30 or so one-month-old lambs. Our 21-year-old shepherd and guide, Miguel, explained to us that he was one of the rare few that both owns and herds his over 1000 sheep. Putting in 16- to 20-hour days, this job appeared to be a true labor of love.

The lambs were skittish and pranced about every time they detected the slightest movement on our part (well, and it probably didn’t help that each time one came near me, I lunged after it in an apparently uncontrollable reflex to pet and play with the cute little things). With one swift grab, though, Miguel swooped up a lamb and placed her comfortably in my arms, where she nestled in as if her previous fear had completely disappeared. She was soft and cuddly, just like a little puppy…until one of her playmates went scurrying by, at which point she started bah-hing wildly to let me know that our cuddling session was over.

Jacobo and I still hadn’t asked the burning question and didn’t really have any intention to – what were these sheep being raised for?? Hoping to get the answer we were looking for (you know, the one where the sheep live long happy lives and die of old age), we danced around the subject asking if they used the sheep for their wool. No no, explained Miguel, it just wasn’t profitable. Apparently the price for wool is less than the cost to have the sheep shaved. OK, so perhaps these little guys were used for milk – a reasonable conclusion considering all of the amazing sheep’s milk cheese that you can find in Spain! With that, Jacobo cautiously ventured on, mentioning that surely the sheep were used for milk. Miguel cut straight to the chase, as if to tell us that the guessing game were over – “we raise them for the meat.” Ouch. That one stung. Apparently the milk route was also very costly, requiring the entire herd to stop in order to be milked.

As we left the corral, my mind was racing as to how I could fit as many lambs as possible into our car. Before I had time to develop a solid strategy, though, we were on our way down the road to visit the larger sheep that were already en route, grazing the land. Seeing those much more sizable creatures quickly shifted whatever strategy I could have ever mustered up. These things were huge! OK, so once full grown, at least three sheep could fit on our balcony….
Heading out to the main herd, we could hear the both calming and deafening drum of sheep bells as the furry animals nibbled at the land. It was there that we were met by Miguel’s brother who was equipped with his shepherd stick and a slew of satchels crossing his chest, one of which, he later explained to us, could be used to hold a baby lamb should it be born while herding. Also, did you know that the shepherd stick (apparently called a “crook”) is much more than just a walking stick? The hook is actually used to grab the lambs by their necks (gently, por favor!!)!

It was time to move the pack of animals to the next pasture, so with a whistle and several shouts of indiscernible words, Miguel’s little dog was off like a race horse, rounding up the sheep. “Es pequeña todavia,” Miguel told us, “she’s still small.” At only nine months old, the pup was still learning. When it came time to circle round the sheep, she simply darted toward the back of the herd before heading straight back to her owner. It seemed like an effective enough technique to me considering that all of the sheep set off on a stampede in my direction (see action shot above).

Anabel, Milagros, Madrileña, Numantina – many of these lovable critters seemed to have names. Numantina, a pregnant, tan-colored goat, took quite the liking to Jacobo and me, following us around and headbutting any little lamb that dared to compete for our attention. Then there was Milagros, the sheep who, when she was young, disappeared for a couple of days before being found, thus earning her name which means miracles. Meanwhile, Miguel was eager to show us his prized little black lamb, shouting “Anabel” across the herd and waiting for her to immerse amidst the wall of sheep. My first thought was how can you adore these animals enough to give them names, and then sell them only to be, well, you know… Miguel explained that he keeps his favorites, so I suppose that means that little Anabel will live a long, happy sheep-life in the Spanish countryside. This gave me a little comfort, but only a little.

We spent the remainder of our time in the open pastures learning the ins and outs of shepherding, feeding the sheep and even milking them. Then, before heading home, we stopped in the nearby Roman pueblo Medinaceli (a required stop if you’re in the region!) to have lunch. I’m still actually contemplating heading back and sheep-napping Numantina. I’m just not so sure that herding her between our balcony and kitchen will measure up to her days of grazing the rolling hills of Spain.

On a related note, I never did come across Jesus’s keys.

*To see pictures from my trip, be sure to join the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page
**For more information on being a shepherd for a day please visit Pastores por un Dia