Onde Vive

Protecting the flock
Relation to the environment
Programa de Distribuição
The traditional sheep and goat herding in north-east Trás-os-Montes is called course herding (pastoreio de percurso), because instead of being taken to a single pasture where they stay all day long, they are led by the shepherd on a course through several grazing areas since they leave the stable in the morning, until they return at the end of the day. The herds are always guarded by two or more mastiff dogs that protect them against wolf attacks, and recently, by one or two herding sheepdogs, that help the shepherd lead the herd and prevent it from entering the surrounding cultivated fields.
This kind of herding is carried out daily and the average distance covered by the herd depends mostly on the amount of available food, as well as on the season.
In winter, the beginning of herding is directly linked to the occurrence of frost. As long as the fields are covered by a thin layer of ice, the herd does not go out. Hence, during this time of the year the herd leaves the stable late in the morning, around 9 or 10 AM. First, it is led to a scrubland area to allow the animals to eat drier plants such as heaths, brooms or gum rockrose. Only afterwards does it go to areas richer in grass, which is frequently moist and could cause them digestive disturbs if consumed first. Close to noon the herd is often seen in more open areas – pastures, stubble fields or fallow land, as well as other fields where food is more abundant – so that the animals don't move too much and the shepherd can eat his lunch. In the afternoon, the herd starts again its course from pasture to pasture until it's time to return to the stable. The pastures are chosen according to availability: an oakland if there are acorns, a rye field that was sown to be grazed or, if nothing else, scrubland, that although rather nutrient-poor, is always abundant.
During spring and autumn, the herding routine is similar, except that the herd leaves the stable more and more earlier as spring advances, or later, as autumn develops. The type and quality of the pastures also changes. In spring, fallow land with new grass and sometimes burned scrublands with new and tender shoots are used with some frequency. In autumn, acorn-rich fields are chosen, either of Oalm oak, Pyrenean oak or Cork oak.
This daily routine is interrupted as summer approaches, as the high temperatures prevent the herds from grazing during most of the daytime. Therefore, herding takes place during two separate periods: dawn/early morning and sunset/night. The first period starts between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. and ends around 9:00 or 10:00 a.m.. The second period starts around 8:00 p.m. and ends between 11:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.. During this time of the year the herd is never enclosed inside barns, spending the night in the field, enclosed in temporary pens. The dogs, and frequently the shepherd, spend the night near the herd.
During the day, after the first grazing period, the herd is led to a drinking point and then left to rest in a shady area (a chestnut grove, a small oak wood, or a riverside meadow with ashes. The shepherd uses this break to go home for a rest, leaving the dogs with the herd. They, too, seek refuge in cooler areas: a brook, sedge or even a vegetable garden. They often dig holes to lay on the cooler ground or even lay for a few seconds in a small pond to cool down. During this period, in addition to the scrub, pastures and fallow land, it is common practice to use the leaves of trees such as ashes to feed the sheep, as well as to sow maize and sorghum for grazing purposes.
The most common sheep breed within the Transmontano mastiff geographic area of origin is the Churra Galega Bragançana. This is a big sized animal, with high legs and thorax, lending it a general tall appearance. It was once bred for wool, meat and soil fertilization. In those times, herds made up almost only of black wooled animals were a common sight. Their dark wool was very appreciated for making harsh but resistant fabrics for everyday use (known as pardo or burel). In those days, herds were smaller, but there were more herds per village. Most of the times, the shepherd was the owner of the herd but he usually did not own any agricultural land, so he used communal and fallow land. Wolf attacks were more frequent because the agricultural area was larger, Wild boar and Roe deer were very scarce and Red deer was not present in the area. In order to survive, wolves had to attack herds almost daily. For this reason, the number of Mastiff dogs was higher than it is today.
Although today the number of herds is smaller, the size of the herds is larger, usually ranging from 150 to 250 animals. Most of the times, the shepherd is still the owner of the herd, but he can now use areas that used to be cultivated, either owned by him, or rented from others. This means that the quality of the pastures used by the herds is better, which leads to higher productivity. The abandonment of agricultural land also resulted in more natural areas and as a consequence, in an increase of the wolf's natural prey, such as the Wild boar and the Roe deer, across the whole region. This in turn contributed in a decisive way to a decrease in the number of wolf damages – if the herds are protected with good Transmontano Mastiff dogs, wolf attacks rarely result in the death of sheep.
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