Meeting Report: European Drove Roads

13 January 2017
Vyv Wood-Gee

Cumberland Street Centre was packed for the first DGNHAS meeting of 2017. The speaker, Viv Wood-Gee from Hoddom, enthralled members with her 2015 talk on the Drove Roads of Britain when she travelled in stages from Skye to Smithfield Market, London, on horseback. This time her subject was European Drove Roads for which a Churchhill Fellowship enabled her to research the situation on the Continent.

In Spain 1% of the surface area of the country is devoted to droving, past and present, and covers 125,000 km, while the railway system measures only 15,000 km, proof positive of the value of 'Vias Pecuarias' to the nation, which on a map are categorised in seven different colours, according to width.

Never allowing anything to stand in her way, Viv signed up for a well-attended Drove Roads Conference in Spain in 2010, despite being unable to speak the language. Development of the roads goes back to Neolithic times when hunter-gatherers followed a network in their quest for deer and wild oxen. Roman roads were incorporated into the scheme. Annually between the 11th and 17th centuries five million sheep, mainly merino, were herded along them and such was their importance that in the 13th century they acquired legal status. 'Ganaderos', who raised the livestock, traditional black cattle as well as sheep, were charged for using the paths and crossing the bridges, thus defraying the cost of upkeep.

Droving led to the establishment of settlements for servicing the drovers with food, water from wells and churches. Transhumance was practised whereby livestock were taken to cooler upper regions in summer and brought down to lower meadows for warmth in winter. Men involved were away from home and living in primitive rush shelters in summer until October. Their return home affected the birth rate! In more recent times the lifestyle was rejected and lorries were used because heavy traffic on roads roused fears that livestock might be killed.

To preserve the historical merits of droving, in 1995 legislation placed an obligation on local government to employ two or three staff to check on drove roads and compile documentation to ensure that drove roads are protected. Small pillars with appropriate signing and other statuary remind road-users that cattle have priority and are important in the nation's heritage. On one day in the year cattle can be herded through Madrid to maintain the legal right. When lack of funding made law enforcement difficult Spain turned to the EU for assistance as drove roads were being lost.

EU funding has effected changes: the rush huts have been replaced by new bothies for drovers, who have been given money for mobile telephones to maintain contact with their families. The virtues of traditional droving outweigh 20th-century developments. For instance, livestock movement is a natural means of seed transfer: what has been eaten en route causes droppings further down the line; seed is picked up by birds; and sheep grazing overnight keeps land in trim. A whole agricultural system — habitats, landscape and livelihood — will be lost and biodiversity will suffer if the drove roads are neglected.

Spain convinced the EU of their case by emphasising that transhumance on the hoof uses less energy and 70% less water than road transport of livestock and 75% less carbon.

In Denmark drove routes were in use from the 13th century and 50,000 cattle per annum were moved along tracks on high ground. Again it was the small hardy black cattle that could cope with the exigencies of the drive and they suited the market.

Farmers were paid to set up hostels for the drovers but no food was provided. The 'Driverweg' or 'Okswegen' came from all parts of the country and converged on their way south to Schleswig-Holstein in Germany for shipping to England in the middle of November.

Nowadays two standing ox horns whose points meet in the air signify a drove road, which might also at stages have sculptures along the way. Users of the track, such as pilgrims heading for Jerusalem, are guided by signage on the side of small granite markers. EU funding has been claimed to restore an 11th-century bridge once used by drovers, but Denmark's climate defeats these attempts at promoting popular tourism.

Italy's drove roads, which follow the Via Francigena, the old pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome, are still in operation. Their history goes back to the 3rd century BC. The Romans established transhumance. They are similar to those in Spain and have legal status, but in covering only 3,100 km they are not as widespread. The country has latched on to the benefits of tying them in with eco-tourism.

France represents another country like Spain and Italy in maintaining the traditions of droving although the roads are not protected in law.

Viv seized upon the opportunity to use sturdy French horses, like her own, to explore the routes. Transhumance is again the guiding principle. Other groups can join in and accompany the drovers. The boss mare carries a bell round her neck. In various places beer, wine and music enhance the revelry, slightly reminiscent of Riding the Marches in Scotland, before the drovers set off to the summer quarters in the Pyrenees. The horses are driven but sheep and the usual black cattle wander free for four months. A shepherd is paid by breeders to stay in the isolated places for four months. Descent to the eastern Camargue in December provides an excuse for another party. In Nice as part of a big festival cattle and sheep are driven through the town to remind people of tradition.

In concluding, a note of envy crept into the intrepid Viv's fast-moving commentary, as she compared the southern European countries' inspirational moves to promote 21st-century droving with that of Britain, where legislation and rules prevent its re-establishment. EU money is there for the asking if a convincing case can be made by a member state, with Spain being the front-runner.

Warm appreciation of Viv's performance and excellent photography was expressed in the vote of thanks for this "knowledgeable enthusiast".