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2,000 sheep led through streets of central Madrid

MADRID (AP) – Spanish shepherds led a flock of more than 2,000 sheep through central Madrid on Sunday in defense of ancient grazing, migration and droving rights threatened by urban sprawl and modern agricultural practices.

Many tourists and residents were surprised to see traffic cut to allow the ovine parade to bleat its way across some of Madrid’s most upscale urban streets.

The right to use droving routes that wind across land that was open fields and woodland before Madrid grew from a rural hamlet to the great metropolis it is today has existed since at least 1273.

Every year, a handful of shepherds defend the right and, following an age-old tradition, on Sunday paid 25 maravedis – coins first minted in the 11th century – to city hall to use the crossing.

Shepherds have a right to use 78,000 miles (125,000 kilometers) of paths for seasonal livestock migrations from cool highland pastures in summer to warmer and more protected lowland grazing in winter.

The movement is called transhumance and in Spain up until recently involved close to a million animals a year, mostly sheep and cattle.

Modern farming practices are however increasingly confining animals to barns, because shepherding is costly, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, which has been promoting the colorful annual Transhumance Fiesta in Madrid since 1994.

Madrid became an important urban center when King Philip II chose it as the capital of his vast empire in 1561. Some paths have been used for more than 800 years and modern-day Madrid has sprawled to engulf two north-south routes. One that crosses Puerta del Sol — Madrid’s equivalent of New York’s Times Square — dates back to 1372.

Spaniards are proud of their centuries-old sheep rearing traditions and hold the native Merino breed of sheep in particular esteem. Merinos have gone on to form the backbone of important wool industries in places such as Australia and South America.

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