Sheep vs. Sheep in Basque Country

Farmers in the border region of France and Spain must choose to save their culture or their farms as a new sheep species invades the area. National identity is invoked; politicians, unions, and environmentalists weigh in on the conflict. But there is no resolution yet.

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Photo by Juan Alcón


Strange things are afoot in the Basque country, a region spanning parts of France and Spain with an age-old cheese-making tradition. National identity is invoked; politicians, unions, and environmentalists weigh in on the conflict. The bone of contention: the introduction of super-productive Israeli-origin assaf sheep into the age-old territory of the indigenous latxa.

The Ancient Breed

For the last four or more millennia, the luxuriously green hills in the north of the Iberian peninsula have been home to the latxa sheep. Nimble, black faced, and curly horned--more like a wild goat than an ordinary sheep--the latxa is indigenous to the mountains east of the Irati river on both sides of the political border between Spain and France. Romantic spirits claim a primordial bond between the origins of the Basque people and of the latxa sheep in the ancient pastoral tradition of these mountains. Such notions carry certain weight in a land of intense national sentiment and ongoing independentist tension.

The milk of the latxa is used to make the many varieties of Idiazabal cheese produced in the highlands of Guipuzcoa and eastern Navarre, as well as the Roncal cheese from northwestern Navarre. Both are considered among the finest cheeses in Europe, their elaboration and quality carefully supervised by denomination of origin (DO) boards.

For the last year or so these boards have been in an uproar. Why? Some farmers have introduced a new hybrid sheep which produces up to three times the milk per season as the latxa. Can this milk be used in the DO cheeses? Is Idiazabal still Idiazabal if the milk is not from latxa sheep? Which is a greater priority, conserving local breeds or keeping small cheeseries alive? Loyalty to tradition or broadening of markets? The responses are not easy and reflect the dilemmas of a changing rural reality, with repercussions from land use to labor rights.

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Photo by Juan Alcón

The Family Farm

I discovered this conflict when I happened to be in Orbaitzeta, a village deep in the Aezkoa valley known for its artisan cheese. Whereas once there were many family cheese-makers in this valley, which falls within the Idiazabal DO area, now only two remain. Both are completely family run. Rosa María, co-proprietor of the Arrazolako Gazta cheesery, explained how she and her husband care for and milk their flock of some 500 latxa sheep, make the cheese and sell it, all without the help of any hired hands. The work, which is continuous, provides just enough income to stay in business. They could expand the flock, increase production, and hire someone to help, but according to their estimations the increase in profit relative to the increase in expenses wouldn't pay off: better to keep it small and do the work themselves. For the couple, this year-long devotion to the flock is worthwhile to keep the tradition alive, but their teenage daughters have made it quite clear that they hope for jobs with benefits and paid vacations, and have no intention of doing the morning milking every day of the year. It is likely the cheesery will not survive this generation.

Rosa María is a firm defender of the latxa sheep, but other family farms faced with similar situations are beginning to feel the lure of imported sheep breeds. The imported breeds are much more productive: With less labor, a farm yields more milk, makes more cheese, enjoys greater profits, and can hire help to offset the demands of farm life, making it more appealing to the younger generation.

Enter the assaf sheep.

If the milk of these foreign breeds is admitted, it will be nearly impossible for those who raise indigenous breeds to compete.

The Newcomer

The assaf is a product of the intensive agricultural experimentation in the early years of the Israeli state, a tremendously productive hybrid of German and Egyptian breeds. In the 1970's a Spanish priest in Jerusalem took note of the qualities of this breed and imported an original flock of 500 lambs to Spain, where they were gradually adopted in Castilian farms. In large swathes of Castile, the assaf--or mixes of assaf with local breeds--have completely displaced the indigenous Castilian or churra sheep. Their requirements are consonant with the industrialization of rural production and the fencing of the old transhumant routes; they prosper in stables rather than grazing in the open, no need for shepherds, no need for seasonal migrations, with milk production occurring all year long. And with this industrial production comes the corresponding contamination and reliance on non-local feed. Moreover, if the milk of these foreign breeds is admitted, it will be nearly impossible for those who raise indigenous breeds to compete, and these breeds will in all likelihood be lost, as has already occurred with several of the indigenous Iberian breeds of cattle.

The Dilemma

After conquering much of the peninsula without generating much fuss, the assaf comes to the Basque regions and unleashes a hullabaloo. Proponents of the assaf interpret this as an intense and unnecessary politicization of all things indigenous in the context of the national question, and appeal to the modernization of the economy: more affordable cheese, a broader market, more regulated labor conditions for agricultural workers. The quality and character of a cheese, they say, depends on its elaboration, not on the raw milk from which its made. After much polemic, it seems the Roncal DO board has accepted this argument and is admitting Roncal cheeses made with a certain proportion of assaf-hybrid milk.

The Idiazabal DO board, however, has decided firmly against the inclusion of foreign-breed milk. The board affirms that DOs were established in the 1980s not only to guarantee the quality of consumer products but also to help preserve rural lifestyles, landscapes and indigenous breeds by recognizing the specific value of certain regional products over and above the steamroller logic of a market which prizes the fast and cheap. A noble project, no doubt: the question is whether this recognition will be sufficient to protect what little is left of the old pastoral traditions from economic attrition. Subsidies help, but only so much. What would be required for these small operations not just to limp along, museums to a dying way of life, but rather to prosper and flourish and fill the mountain pastures with lambs?