Shepherds assert ancient rights of way in Madrid

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The Independent Online

Farmers led a flock of sheep through Madrid in an annual protest calling for the protection of ancient grazing routes threatened by urban sprawl.

Around 700 of the animals meandered along downtown thoroughfares, bleating and tinkling bells in a pungent-smelling parade that also featured donkeys, horses and humans in old-fashioned garb from rural areas of Spain.

The protest, in its 14th year, calls on authorities to protect Spain's 125,000 kilometres (78,000 miles) of paths used for seasonal movement of livestock from cool, highland pastures in summer to lower-lying ones in winter. Some of the paths are 800 years old. Madrid lies along two of the north-south routes. One of these dates back to 1372 and, at least on paper, it runs through the Puerta del Sol - the bustling plaza that is the city's equivalent of New York's Times Square.

The routes are protected under Spanish law but in practice housing developments, highways and railways have nibbled away at the paths, said Jesus Garzon, a former farmer and rural activist who is the brains behind an initiative to preserve the practice known as transhumance - the seasonal movement of livestock. In Spain it involves a million sheep, cattle and other creatures.

"Our mission is to recover transhumance because it is a thousand-year-old right," he said in an interview. Crowds lined the route past such august buildings as the Bank of Spain, and small children squealed as they petted the thick, matted wool of the marchers. A Madrid resident, Conchi Munoz, filmed her daughter Beatriz, four, as the child lifted one large specimen's tail to see what was underneath. "She is really enjoying this," Ms Munoz said. The march was delayed by a week as roadworks in the areas forced crews to build a makeshift bridge for the animals to cross.