Hundreds of Sheep Driven Through Downtown Madrid in Ecological Protest

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

Around 700 of the animals meandered along major thoroughfares in downtown Madrid, 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, now in its 14th year, calls on authorities to protect Spain's 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 them 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 Madrid's equivalent of New York City's Times Square.

The routes are protected under Spanish law but in practice housing developments, highways and railways have nibbled away at the time-honored 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 animals — 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 Sunday's route past such august buildings as the Bank of Spain, and small children squealed as they petted the thick, matted wool of the marchers, mostly white but also including the odd black sheep.

Madrid resident Conchi Munoz filmed her four-year-old daughter Beatriz as the child lifted one large specimen's tail to see what was underneath.

"She is really enjoying this," Munoz said.

A flock of around 1,000 sheep has spent the last week grazing in a park on the city's western outskirts, preparing for the procession. It was to have taken place last weekend, but was delayed by road work that forced crews to build a makeshift bridge so the animals could cross.

More than 200 females missed Sunday's procession because their gave birth during the week and had to stay with their lambs, said Garzon.