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How to learn from sheep what you can't understand from the office

A revelatory experience to show you how the other side works. This is how Elena Galán, a post-doctoral researcher at the Basque Centre for Climate Change, describes her experience as a shepherd in Baja Navarra.

She took advantages of a gap between contracts of a few months to learn this trade and spend some time in a commonly-owned mountain area belonging to the municipality of Donibane Garazi. The story of her life and what she learned during this time away from the office was the focus of the symposium organised by the Donostia Sustainability Forum to explain what sustainable pastoralism consists of.

Elena Galán del Castillo holds a doctorate in Economic History and a bachelor's degree in Environmental Science. Her research focuses on the present day, studying economic, social and institutional aspects of Basque pastoral systems. She embarked on this time as a shepherd without creature comforts, sleeping in a hut without electricity, taking water from a spring and warming herself at a wood fire. It is a job that lasts 24 hours a day and calls for hard physical work, often in cold, foggy and wet weather conditions. However, in this summer in the mountains she discovered something she already knew in theory but had never experienced.

What does sustainable pastoralism consist of? According to Elena Galán, "You have to have a varied circuit, with mixed patches of vegetation, and you have to master the art of moving the sheep so that they eat in the best scrubland areas and not on limited grass that must not be over-grazed. Sustainable management of mountain pastures means avoiding both over-grazing, which leaves bare soil, as well as under-grazing, which lets scrubland develop with the consequent risk of fires.

Elena Galán stressed the importance of traditional pastoralism in maintaining these ecosystems, because "Pastures have great natural value and biodiversity, associated precisely with pastoral use, as well as a high CO2-fixing capacity and helping to reduce the risk of fires."

Animal communication

Communication with the animals is essential to make everything work, she explained. And to do this one can "impose the reign of terror" with dogs or enlist the help of the lead sheep, which is what this BC3 researcher managed to do. Using apples she managed to get the black sheep, the one the others followed, to move according to her instructions, making it easier to handle the flock.

Communication with the people who visit the mountains has other peculiarities, as she explained. "They film without permission, they split up the flock, they often bring dogs that frighten the sheep and they use fine grassy meadows as car parks," she complained. There is a great disconnect between society in general and the rural world, she added, which means there are a lot of "simplistic and even derogatory" ideas about shepherds.

The future of the sector

In her opinion the main problem is access to land, as not everyone inherits land or can make use of common pastures. Then there is the question of incentives, she pointed out: how to pay a person who works 24 hours a day. In France, for example, assistance is available to help employ the people who, like her, look after the flock in the summer months it spends in the mountains. Working on contract with healthcare cover, as she was able to do, should help to make the job more attractive.

When asked whether she would like to work as a shepherd again, she would not hesitate to repeat the experience. "For a researcher it is less frustrating to study the countryside when you have worked in the countryside."