I recall hearing the sound of goat-bells early in the morning, back when I used to live in the old town center of Cercedilla, a melodious tinkling coming from up the valley towards Siete Picos, the age-old, aleatory, jangling musicality of rudimentary bells hanging from the necks of moving animals, resonating across the valleys and across the centuries and striking a chord deep within me on an early 21st century Sunday morning. It is not however very usual to see (or hear!) herds of goats or sheep in the central Sierra area in recent times. The traditional pastoral way of life, for many synonymous with hardship, has been in decline for many decades, replaced by the local building industry, the hotel and restaurant business, outdoor leisure services or, where livestock farming survives, limited to the breeding of cows and horses, animals that forage independently over the hillsides needing neither pastor nor, more often than not, bell.
Nevertheless the pastoral lifestyle survives, perhaps more visibly on the “other” side of the Sierra in Ávila and Segovia, but also in Madrid and particularly in the less “developed” Sierra Norte. One small proof of this is the annual sheep-shearing festival, La Fiesta del Esquileo, held in Puebla de la Sierra, a village nestling in a relatively remote valley in the North of Madrid bordering Guadalajara, about 20km EastNorthEast of Buitrago. I attended this event last weekend along with several hundred other people. The upper valley of Puebla is surrounded by mountains with attractive peaks over 1800m, the terrain is often abrupt, the landscapes beautiful, the hillsides covered in mixed forest of replanted pine and oak. Just outside the village is a picnic area along the river shaded by rebollos (Pyrenean Oak) and chopos (Poplar), and here the masses gathered. In this very Spanish place the day’s first entertainment was provided by a Scottish dog speaking excellent French(!) Well ok, the dog, a Border Collie, while undoubtedly a very intelligent animal, did not actually make a speech in the Gallic tongue, but, due to the fact that it had been trained in France, responded expertly to the shepherd’s commands in French, and gave an impressive demonstration of how a man and a dog can direct a flock of sheep.
Set up along the river were a series of stalls and tables offering locally made sheep’s and goat’s cheeses for sale, demonstrations of traditional wool processing techniques, information on local communities etc. But the main entertainment of the day was of course the sheep-shearing demonstration. Now, watching a bunch of guys, however well-muscled and tanned, cutting the wool off the backs of sheep may not be everybody’s idea of a cool way to spend their Saturday afternoon – though I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer it to being a member of the herd watching a bunch of guys, however well-muscled and tanned (and overpaid), chasing an “inflated sheep’s bladder” around the Santiago Bernabeu stadium – but I was keen to see sheep getting sheared at least once, even if only for the anthropological value of the experience. Here I don’t mean to make the typical urbanite’s mistake of converting traditional rural practices into transcendental cultural rites just because they are rather different from everyday city routines, trying to produce a silk purse from a sow’s ear, so to speak. Chris Stewart, Órgiva’s most famous immigrant sheep-farmer, makes it very clear that sheep-shearing – as practised by him in Sweden, Spain and elsewhere – is tough, dirty work and hardly what you would call fun. Nevertheless, sheep-shearing, and more broadly sheep and goat herding, is a practice that has been close to our souls – and our skins – for millennia; it is intrinsic to the development of civilisation in Europe and the Middle East. We are quick to forget.. little over half a century of petrochemical fibres and our former dependence on wool – and other natural fibres – has faded into oblivion.
So, the show began and the wool started to fall away from the sheep, before the assembled crowd. Among the sheep-shearers displaying their skills with the electric shears was an older man using the traditional manual shears. Whereas the younger men dispatched their sheep in less than five minutes, he took half an hour to carefully separate the fleece from the black sheep at his feet, but without a single cut on the animal’s body. Undoubtedly masterful.. but think about the scenario if you had a herd of several hundred sheep in front of you waiting to be shorn? Technology, love it or hate it, it has its upsides.
The day was rounded off by the journey home, driving down the valley. The lower valley of Puebla is less spectacular with its treeless slopes and rounded hilltops, but Nature still had an ace up its sleeve. Lying in wait for us was the spectacle of the jara (rock rose) in bloom. Never have I seen such an extension of these beautiful white flowers.. jaras covering the hillsides as far as the eye could see.