With more and more women leaving Spain’s rural towns in favor of cities, a new initiative has been launched to help save rural Spanish towns that are fading from the map, while offering women a foothold in a trade long dominated by men: shepherding.
Spain has a long tradition of shepherding livestock, with an estimated one percent of its entire territory consisting of rugged pathways that men have long used to lead their flocks to lush pastures. Now, more women are poised to start traveling those same pathways with their flocks thanks to a new establishment called the School for Shepherdesses of the 21st Century.
“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.”
According to Lidia Díaz, the school was born out of a striking realization that women were abandoning rural areas in greater numbers than men, leaving an aging population in their wake. “Villages are being masculinized,” she added. “It’s a step backward.” After registration got underway earlier this year, 265 applications came in rather quickly.
The shepherding course, which lasts nine months, 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. Pacheco says women from all across mainland Spain and even as far as the Canary Islands all have their own reasons for joining the course. Some were women worn out by urban life and the Covid-19 lockdowns. Others had overcome abusive relationships and were starting their life anew.
Along with shepherding, the students will get a crash course in small-scale, sustainable farming. The course blends 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. Perhaps most importantly, the course honors work-life balance, allowing women to 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.
It may sound a bit odd to think of a 21st-century school for female shepherds, but when you look at what the school offers, you see just how empowering it is—both for women and Spain’s rural towns.