MADRID, Spain (AP) _ The bleating of sheep mixed with clapping cow bells and the calls of leather-vested shepherds Sunday afternoon, but the scene was no idle pasture.
Two thousand sheep scampered through the busy thoroughfares and plazas of downtown Madrid, delighting urban onlookers. Shepherds led the wooly animals in a demonstration aimed at preserving traditional livestock paths crisscrossing the country.
“This used to be one of the pathways, so it makes sense that the sheep walk this way,″ said Moises Perez, a shop owner who watched the procession along the Calle Mayor, one of Madrid’s oldest streets.
A coalition of farms and ecology groups hope to maintain nearly 56,000 miles of livestock pathways, many dating back to the Middle Ages.
Keeping the routes open, says Hilario Villalvilla of the ecologist group Aedenat, helps curb urban and rural development, which in turn safeguards about 1 million acres of public land, protects wildlife and water resources, and preserves one of the traditions of rural Spanish life.
“This is an environmental issue but it is also a way of keeping alive something very close to Spanish culture,″ said Villalvilla.
Fresh from a summer spent in Spain’s cool northern mountains, the sheep are on a monthlong 560-mile trek back to their home farms near the western city of Caceres.
About 1.2 million livestock leave Spain’s parched southern plains in the summer. Only about 200,000 of them return home in the fall by migrating along pathways; the others make the trip on trucks or trains.
The preference for faster travel and the effects of development have led the paths, which extend from the Pyrenees Mountains in Aragon to the plains of Andalucia, to deteriorate over the past three decades.
But ecologists, backed by national laws mandating protection of the traditional pathways, hope to encourage more livestock owners to choose the cheaper, natural route.
Preserving the routes also will keep pathways open to walkers, bicyclists and naturalists, they note. The land also benefits: The sheep eat grasses and plants as they pass, thinning out potential forest-fire fuel, and leaving behind a load of _ ahem _ natural fertilizer.
Furthermore, the effort helps Spaniards uphold the cherished image of the solitary shepherd at ease walking with a curved wooden cane through country fields.
“I like to see the sheep, it reminds me of my younger days,″ said Jose Santos Villanueva, 73, who worked much of his life tending sheep near the city of Todelo south of Madrid.
The sheep, escorted by police and trailed by a city clean-up crew, circled the stone Puerta de Alcala arch before heading to nearby park lands for the evening.
Shepherd Jose Garcia said he was thrilled so many people came out to see the sheep. But the enthusiasm was mixed with weariness _ there is still a week remaining on the long trek.
“I’m a bit tired after so much walking,″ said Garcia, 25 “Actually, I’m more worried about the animals’ feet _ the ground here is awfully hard.″