The rugged pathways crisscross Spain, sprawling across an estimated 1% of its territory. Etched into the land over centuries, the country’s livestock roads have long been the domain of solitary men leading their flocks to lush pastures.
Now a new initiative is looking to change this with the launch of the country’s first shepherding school for women. The aim of the School for Shepherdesses of the 21st Century is twofold: offering women a foothold in a trade long dominated by men, while also throwing a lifeline to the thousands of Spanish towns that are slowly fading from the map.
“There are other shepherd schools that women can attend,” said Susana Pacheco, the driving force behind the new school, headquartered in the northern region of Cantabria. “But the difference is that we’ve thought this through from the perspective of women. That’s why we’re talking about work-life balance, creating networks of mutual support and collaboration.”
The project is being launched under the banner of the Spanish Association Against Depopulation, a national organisation that works to bolster the prospects of areas where the population is plummeting.
The school’s focus on women was born out of a striking realisation that women were abandoning rural areas in greater numbers than men, leaving in their wake an ageing population, said Lidia Diaz of the association. “Villages are being masculinised,” she added. “It’s a step backwards.”
It’s a scene playing out across Spain, where the population across more than half of the country’s surface area has been steadily whittled away by urbanisation. In a bid to stave off slow death, villages across Spain have got creative, wooing would-be residents with bargains on land, babysitters and even bachelors. Few of these initiatives, however, have focused solely on women.
The nine-month shepherding course includes nearly 500 hours of online training and one weekend a month of hands-on instruction set against the mountains and deep valleys of Cantabria, and after registration got under way earlier this year, 265 applications came pouring in. “It was a very pleasant surprise,” said Pacheco. “It’s clear that we’re meeting a need that exists in society.”
From across mainland Spain and as far as the Canary Islands, women detailed their reasons for seeking out the tranquil grind of rural farming life, from urban dwellers worn out by a year of lockdowns to women who had overcome abusive relationships.
The school is currently in the process of selecting the 30 students who will be part of its first session, with the start date of the course yet to be finalised. A round of calls has also gone out to the public and private sector in hopes of scrounging up funding to fully cover the EUR12,000 (GBP10,000) cost of the course for each student.
What they’ll get is a crash course in small-scale, sustainable farming, carefully mapped out in 17 modules. The course will blend traditions that stretch back millennia, such as the use of indigenous species of livestock, with the latest advances in technology, such as the use of drones to track livestock as they roam.
The quest for work-life balance threads through much of the course; women can bring their children to hands-on training sessions in ventures such as beekeeping, cheesemaking and sustainable tourism, with the aim of allowing women to diversify their income.
As plans for the school come together, the focus on women has not been without controversy. Last month a member of the Ciudadanos party in the regional Cantabria parliament tabled a series of written questions regarding the project. The region already has farm-focused courses that “do not segregate by sex”, the party noted.
Pacheco, the school’s creator, responded by pointing to the dire demographic situation facing the northern region, where there are 149 seniors for every 100 children. “If we want generational change, women are fundamental,” she said.
As long as job prospects remained more attractive in urban areas, there was little hope of reversing this trend, said Pacheco. “Women have always worked in rural environments but oftentimes they work intensely with little recognition,” she added. “We see this school as a social transformation project – we want to empower women and dignify this work.”