LIFE IN THE COUNTRY

Finding pastures new at Catalonia’s school for shepherds

Young people tired of city life are training up for a new, if lonely, existence in the mountains

Shepherding instructor Armand Flaujat oversees student Marina Collado’s internship.
Shepherding instructor Armand Flaujat oversees student Marina Collado’s internship.JAVIER MARTÍN

One year after finishing her degree in tourism studies, Marina Collado moved out of her parents’ home in the Catalan coastal town of Mataró and into a log cabin in the Pyrenees, where she wakes up early each morning to tend a flock of around 1,000 sheep.

It’s a big change for the 25-year-old: for the next two months her main companions will be six dogs, a donkey called Rogelia, and Armand Flaujat, the man who will teach her the skills she needs to become a shepherd.

Set up in 2009, the school is based on a similar initiative begun by the Basque regional government in 1997

Collado is one of 14 students attending the Catalan Shepherds’ School, set up in 2009, and based on a similar initiative by the Basque regional government dating back to 1997: the model has also been copied in Asturias, Andalusia and Castilla y León as a way to keep this ancient skill alive.

Not that there is any shortage of young people interested in tending livestock. “For the last decade, we’ve seen more and more people who want to leave the cities,” says Vanessa Freixa, the head of the Catalan school. “The school is a laboratory where students are tested over a five-month period. Some come to realize that they don’t have what it takes, while others see that this really is what they have always wanted to do.”

Of the 83 people who have attended the course, 64 percent are now shepherds, seven percent are still looking for work, while the remainder have moved on to other things.

After paying €500, along with a €300 deposit, students spend a month in the tiny community of Montenartró, in Lleida province, learning the theory. The syllabus includes classes on cultivating fodder, animal reproduction, feeding livestock, checking soil quality, and how to make organic cheese.

Flaujat, who spends each summer tending the flocks of four farmers in the Pyrenees, sets aside time each spring to teach students the basics of dog training. “I studied telecommunications,” he says, leaning on his staff. “My mother was a dressmaker and my father a plumber, and it wasn’t easy making a start in the countryside at the age of 24. I was very keen, but I knew nothing.”

Some come to realize they don’t have what it takes, while others see that this really is what they want to do” Catalan Shepherds’ School head Vanessa Freixa

He is now a skilled shepherd, controlling his flock in a mixture of French, Basque and Occitan: “That’s a language for each sheepdog, so that only it obeys that particular command. I learned this in France: they really value livestock there. In this country there was nowhere for people to learn the skills, which is why I decided to offer my services as a teacher when I heard about the school,” he adds.

Students start the four-month practical part of the course in April, either in the Basque Country or in northern Catalonia. This is where 26-year-old Santi Serra is looking after around 100 goats while staying in a 900-year-old farmhouse. It belongs to Jordi Olle and Silvia Luis, a young couple who, like him, have started a new life in the countryside.

The couple are teaching Serra the secrets of making a living from raising goats. He has spent the last six years in forestry, digging trenches with an excavator. “I was always on the move, from one place to another,” he says. “What I want now is stability.”

Olle and Luis say they understand his desire to get away from it all. “We go to Barcelona once a year, to take part in the Diada Catalan national day celebrations,” says Olle pouring out a couple of shots of homemade alcohol at 10 in the morning.

“It’s a way of life, not a way to make money,” adds his wife, who is breast-feeding her two-year-old daughter.

She is responsible for making the cheese, while he looks after the animals, with both sharing the bringing up of their two children.

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Anna Plana, another former pupil of the school, looks after a flock of 300 goats and sheep, and says that five years on, she finds it hard work combining her shepherding with raising a child. “I’m happy when I go out to walk with the animals, but now I have a boy, I’ll have to find a way to spend more time with him,” she says.

The 29-year-old, who was persuaded by her boyfriend at the time to become a shepherd, did the practical part of her studies on a farm run by Antonio, in Llessui, in Lleida. “That was when we split up, but Antonio helped me to find land, and even now, when I have a problem he’s the first person I call,” she says.

The instructors play a vital role in the training of these apprentice shepherds. Flaujat has already helped Silvia Collado find work when the summer is over. “I want to set up a school, but for the more forgotten sectors of society,” she says. Her goal is to do so by 2020, so she is already looking for work in France “to keep the wolf from the door during the year” and will try to become a mountain shepherd each summer to save up money. “You can earn between €2,000 and €3,000 a month, but people don’t want to do it because you are isolated from the rest of society and not everybody is able to handle that.”

Flaujat agrees: “The hardest thing about this job is the loneliness.”