Gripping a sheep firmly between her legs, Vanesa Castillo holds its head with one hand while she tries to shear off its thick fleece with electric clippers.
“It’s scary!” said Castillo, 37, slightly unnerved by her first attempt at sheep shearing at a school for shepherds in western Spain.
“You have to pull the animal’s skin taut, really slowly, so you don’t cut it,” explained Jose Rivero, the professional sheep shearer giving the course.
Sheep shearing is just one of the classes offered at the school in Casar de Caceres in rural Extremadura to counter the flight from the land that has left large swathes of inland Spain thinly populated.
Set up in 2015, the idea was “to bring in people who love the countryside”, said Enrique “Quique” Izquierdo, who runs the school.
It aims to provide all the training and resources needed to create “a shepherd for the 21st century… with the most up-to-date methods in a sector where the traditional and the cutting-edge merge.”
Much of Spain’s sheep and goat farming is concentrated in rugged Extremadura. The school at Casar de Caceres is one of several across the country, the first set up in the northern Basque Country in 1997.
Tech and tradition
“The traditional image of a shepherd wandering through the fields all day” doesn’t exist any more, said Jurgen Robledo, a vet who said the students are taught how to use many hi-tech tools including milk control programmes.
This year, 10 students are taking the five-month course which also includes hands-on experience of working with animals.
Thibault Gohier, 26, is learning how to milk goats and to identify whether any of them are sick, which could affect the quality of their milk.
“You need to use your fingertips as if they were your eyes,” said Felipe Escobero, who heads the farm where the school is based, as they feel a black goat’s mammary lymph nodes at the top of the udder.
When they’re healthy, “they should feel like an almond”, Escobero added.
The course also covers financial matters and how to fill out certificates attesting to animal welfare or pesticide use.
Completely free, it is funded by the Cooprado livestock farmers’ cooperative.
Vet Robledo said modern hi-tech tools mean shepherds can now “measure the individual (milk) production of each animal.
“Such data can let a farmer see if production has dropped due to a subclinical mastitis infection by detecting a drop in production in a certain number of animals.”
Unlike normal mastitis, such infections don’t cause any visible changes to the milk or udder appearance, making them difficult to detect, although they do affect the farmer’s bottom line by reducing milk production and quality.
Some students already work in farming and want to specialise, while others are completely new to the field, such as Vanesa Castillo, who is taking the course with her 17-year-old daughter Arancha Morales.
Originally employed at an old people’s home until it shut down two years ago, leaving her scrambling for work, her dream now is to have a sheep farm.
“We’re looking for a way to bring home some money,” said her daughter, whose father can’t work after having an accident.
Both women know they face an uphill battle, above all to find an affordable piece of land for their flock, a common problem across Extremadura.
Thibault Gohier comes from a very different background.
A young Frenchman who loves animals and the countryside, his dream is to have “a bed and breakfast with a small farm attached with about 30 animals” in a mountainous area of France.
As the other students are learning to shear, El Ouardani El Boutaybi is feeding dozens of restless goats who are scampering around a pen.
“I did the shepherds’ school and all the practical courses in June 2020… and then they took me on to work with them,” said the 20-year-old, who comes from the coastal town of Nador in northeastern Morocco.
He got to Spain in 2017 after crossing the fence into the Spanish enclave of Melilla in North Africa, where he spent time in a centre for unaccompanied minors before being transferred to the peninsula.
“I’ve got a future working in the countryside,” he said proudly.