Spanish shepherds led flocks of sheep through the streets of downtown Madrid on Sunday in defense of ancient grazing, migration and droving rights threatened by urban sprawl and man-made frontiers. Jesus Garzon, president of a shepherds council established in 1273, said some 5,000 sheep and 60 cattle crossed the city to exercise the right to droving routes that existed before Madrid grew from a rural hamlet to the great capital it is today.
Following an age-old tradition, a chief herdsman paid 25 maravedis - coins first minted in the 11th century - to use the crossing, Garzon said. Shepherds have a right to use 78,000 miles (125,000 kilometers) of paths for seasonal livestock migrations from cool highland pastures in summer to warmer grazing in winter. The movement is called transhumance and in Spain it involves around a million animals, mostly sheep and cattle.
Some paths have been used annually for more than 800 years and modern-day Madrid is in the way of two north-south routes, one dating back to 1372. The capital is a relatively modern city by European standards, only receiving its status as the administrative center of Spain's empire when King Philip II moved his court here in 1561.
As a result, the Puerta del Sol - a thronging plaza that is Spain's equivalent of New York City's Times Square - now straddles one of the routes. For the past 18 years shepherds have halted traffic in autumn to assert their rights to cross the city.
Spaniards treasure ancient shepherding customs and feel particularly proud of native strains such as the Merino sheep that has gone on to form the backbone of important wool industries around the world, such as in Australia. The herds that flocked onto the streets of Madrid on Sunday had spent the summer grazing in Brieva de Cameros, 185 miles (300 kilometers) north of Madrid, Garzon said.