For the Serranos, there is no difference between the
Montes Universales Merino breed (MMU) and transhumance.
and transhumance, one thing leads to the other, an activity still in force and that has decisively marked the personality of those who practice it. The shepherds of the Sierra de Albarracín continue to improve their merina (as they call it) huts inherited from their parents generation after generation and renewed at each replacement.
D. Ignacio de Asso
(1798) ratified the livestock vocation of the neighbors of the Community of Albarracín:
“All his luck is made by cattle, whose wool is undoubtedly the finest in Aragon, and it is clear that the natural suitability of the land requires preference to be given to the art of shepherding. The ancient settlers and inhabitants of the Party convinced of such a notorious truth dedicated all their attention to the breeding of livestock and transhumant livestock and this was always their real wealth”.
Merina variety Montes Universales
In the Sierra de Albarracín from remote times, livestock activity has been predominant and with it the transhumance.
The history of transhumance takes us back to time immemorial. Some researchers relate transhumance to the nomadism of the Celtiberian peoples. According to
The Celtiberians were shepherds and it seems that the Community of Albarracín and the bordering territories of the mountains of Cuenca and Guadalajara are part of an area that would correspond to the southern Celtiberia. Julius Klein argues that the custom of biannual migrations dates back to the time of the Iberians, as the wandering shepherds assisted the Carthaginians in their marches across the Iberian Peninsula. This same author thinks that the Muslims contributed to the consolidation of the merina. “The Merino breed has predominated in the Sierra de Albarracín since the 15th century. Just like the churra tensina in the Pyrenees”. (Fernández Otal, 1996).
Since the Middle Ages, there has been a large influx of Aragonese, Valencian and Castilian farmers to graze their flocks in the fresh summer pastures of the Sierra de Albarracín, paying 10 head per flock (each flock consisted of 1000 sheep), until 1936, when Jaime reduced this right to 5 head.
Merino wool, Montes Universales variety
Between 1390 and 1400 some mountain places are listed as suppliers of wool to the Italian company Datini de Prato: Albarracín, Orihuela del Tremedal, Bronchales, Torres de Albarracín, Villar del Cobo, Saldón, Bezas, Terriente and Jabaloyas.
The main activity of the Albarracín mountain range in the past revolved around livestock and a product derived from it: wool. Important cattle herds grazed permanently or temporarily in the sierra, which according to different testimonies were of excellent quality and provided very fine wool.
D. Ignacio de Asso
there was a “big difference between the Albarracín cattle that winter in Andalusia (in the sierra when we speak of Andalusia we include Extremadura and Ciudad Real.) and those that go to Valencia and Murcia, because the wool of the former is without comparison finer than that of the latter, as can be seen in some of Valdecuenca and Calomarde. The fineness of these wools is due to the care taken by the natives to improve the breeds with sheep and parents from Soria, other parts of Castile and Extremadura. Also contributing to the excellence of Albarracín wool is the nature of the pastures, which combine fineness, delicacy and abundant nutritional substance. The pastures reputed to be outstanding are those of Ródenas, those of the Muela de S. Juan near Griegos and the mountains of Frías and Guadalaviar”.
An important part of the wool production was exported unprocessed to Italy, where it was used as raw material for textile manufacturing in the north of the country. Wool began to have an important presence in Italy from the 14th century onwards.
Wool was not only part of the foreign trade but also nourished the native textile industry, whose origins date back to the time of the reconquest.
During the 19th and 20th centuries we witnessed a slow decline in the value of wool. Although the production of meat and hides was always the main purpose of livestock farming, for centuries wool was as coveted, if not more so, to the point that there were times when the value of wool production exceeded four times that of the lamb itself. So much so that the shepherds of the Sierra de Albarracín who transhumed in the extremes paid for the pastures with what they collected from the sale of wool and even had a secure livelihood when they returned home during the summer.
Transhumance of the Merina Montes Universales breed today.
A passion for the origins and traditions of transhumance is an essential part of Spanish culture. Transhumance continues to be linked to the Merino sheep of the Montes Universales variety. Many were those who tried to change the blood of their cattle, buying replacement lambs of other breeds. But they realized that they were not adapted to this coming and going, to these sudden changes in temperature. The transhumant shepherds of the Sierra de Albarracín have been maintaining this variety for centuries.
We must also make a reference to the shepherds who for various reasons decided to stay in the mountains to winter, they continue to maintain this breed, because perhaps it copes very well with the springs and summers grazing as the transhumant herds in the Sierra. To become stabled cattle during the long winter without going out in the field.
The wool mountain
To ensure the major source of income, which was wool, the Community created in the second half of the seventeenth century, the Monte de lanas, based in Albarracín, and whose purpose was to buy and sell the wool of the Sierra farmers.
The wool fund was an institution developed by the community with clear social objectives: to defend the price of wool against large foreign buyers and to help farmers in case of economic difficulties by advancing money on account of the sale of their wool at reasonable interest rates.
The Mesta of Albarracín
Ligallos or mestas have a similar origin both in Castile and in the Crown of Aragon. According to the first great historian of transhumance, Julius Klein, these assemblies could have Visigothic antecedents, since references to them are found in the Fuero Juzgo.
The mesta of Albarracín was controlled by the local oligarchies of the villages, who were the first interested in the good progress of the herds. In addition, their profits went to the Community and had an impact on the improvement of livestock infrastructure: passes, watering troughs and trails. Hence, their ordinances included the obligation to hold these assemblies, establishing penalties for farmers who did not attend.
Albarracín did not have an association of shepherds until the 15th century. The proximity and relations of Albarracín with the kingdom of Castile (the wintering place of part of its herd) meant that its officials had long sought to enjoy the same prerogatives as the brothers of the Honrado Concejo de la Mesta. Finally, after paying 26,000 escudos to the monarchy, the Albarracín ranchers obtained a royal decree from Charles II that made them similar to the Castilians, although they continued to maintain their particularities and privileges.
Benefits of the Montes Universales variety for transhumance
The Merino breed of the Montes Universales variety suffers extreme conditions. It is a strong sheep that calmly endures an autumn trail full of cold and snow, a hot trail back in June with hardly any water to drink and sometimes scarcity of food.
To go by trail (Cuenca’s cattle track) today in Spanish lands is something very difficult more in spring (it is all sown) than in autumn. Handling a herd of sheep is sometimes impossible. The Merino sheep of the Montes Universales variety, thanks to its smaller size and hardiness, is easier to graze on the trails or to load on a truck (transhumance is done in trucks).
I will not only talk about his size, as a virtue, but also about his temperament. Noble sheep easy to graze in the rugged terrain of the Sierra de Albarracín, quiet cattle that walk slowly down each dawn from the mountains to the plain to the voice of their shepherd and the sound of cowbells.
Today, transhumance seems to exist because of pride, tradition and the hard work of the shepherds. What is needed now is to move away from the romantic idea and face reality. We should not emphasize the romanticism of transhumance to such an extent that it is seen as too sacred to allow modern industry to wrap it in its mantle.
All the information has been obtained from the book Guía del
Museum of Transhumance in Guadalaviar.
. In which we talk about this millenary practice and the importance of the evolution of the Merina breed, until it became the Merina Montes Universales variety.