The mountains of Asturias fascinate me not only because of their outstanding natural beauty but also because of the way its inhabitants have managed to make a livelihood farming out of such a challenging environment. With so much good weather over the last couple of months I've managed to do lots of walking in the mountains, visiting areas that I hadn’t been to for the last two or three years. What struck me most is how many of the high mountain pastures are being lost (overgrown) and with them a way of life and a valuable resource.
The huge mountain pasture of Arcenorio in Ponga. The edges of the pasture are being taken over by gorse, heather and bracken.
Poor communications and isolation in this mountainous region has meant that the people have had to be very self sufficient, living from and respecting the natural resources that surround them. The woods were managed in a sustainable way for the production of timber and so were the pastures which would be covered with snow in the winter months but provide a huge source of food for animals which grazed them in the summer months.
In the spring the snow starts to melt from the winter pastures, near Peña Crespa Caso.
Whole families would move to these high pastures “majadas” in late spring living in specially built stone huts “cabañas” staying there for six months to tend to their animals. With them they would take their chickens to provide eggs, pigs for making sausages latter in the year, as well as sheep, goats, and cows. When the cattle had excess milk they would make cheese ready for the winter and the whey from the cheese would be used to feed the pigs. This was permaculture at its best.
There used to be whole communities living in these mountain pastures caring for a large number of different farm animals. As the winter months approached these communities would return to their villages lower down the hills and with them they would take their fattened animals and cheeses either to sell or for use over the winter.
La Beyuga, one of the many summer pasture settlements now abandoned in the Picos de Europa
Sadly times are changing and now there are very few families who spend the summer months in the mountain pastures. These days most farmers live all the year round in the lower villages and visit their cattle on a day to day basis or in many cases less frequently. With less vigilance of their flocks there are more attacks by predators namely wolves. Sheep and goats are the most vulnerable so very few farmers now have these animals roaming free in the mountains and tend to exclusively farm cows.
When there are a variety of different animals grazing the pastures very few “weeds” get uneaten, what the cows don’t eat the goats will and the pastures remain “healthy” rich in species but with few woody specimens. When there are a reasonable number of animals grazing the pastures the bracken gets knocked about and has a harder time to survive and the few undesirable species that get left by the animals are easily removed by the farmer.
Now when there are only cows grazing the pastures more weeds get left behind, particularly gorse and brambles and the pastures start to deteriorate. This means more time is needed by the farmers to keep the pastures clean and there is the temptation to use uncontrolled fires to “clean” the pastures. In some cases (particularly in the national park of The Picos de Euros) it can be the park wardens which periodically clear the gorse in specific areas. But sadly in general there is a continual loss of these pastures.
The pastures of Belbin near the Lakes of Covadonga where the national park has helped maintained the pastures clean and set up a cheese producing facility.
If we loose these pastures and they slowly revert back to natural woodland many people will think this is good from a conservationist point of view. I see it in a different way; these pastures have evolved over many hundreds and probably thousands of years and have become an integral part of the mountain landscape. To me what is even more important is they are the epitome of sustainable meat production. Normally no food concentrates are used to fatten the animal’s, just fresh pasture and may be some hay in the winter. This is the food system we need to support as opposed to industrial agriculture.
Traditional hay stacks being prepared ready for feeding the cows in the winter when they come down from the moutain pastures, near Casiellas in Ponga
What we do at the hotel is to buy meat raised on these mountain pastures. In Asturias the cows which graze the mountain pastures are the “Casin” breed or Asturian mountain cow as these are most adapted to the terrain. We are lucky in that we can buy direct from the farmer and know the breed of cow and where and how they have been raised. If you are in Asturias and buy from a butcher and don’t know the exact source or are in a restaurant ask for “Casin” beef as there is a very good chance it is coming from mountain pastures.
A heard of Casin cows being moved from one summer pasture to another near Vega Ario Picos de Europa.
Unfortunately the dairy and cheese industry has practically been lost from these mountains. There are now only 4 cheese (Gamonedo) producers who use milk from animals which graze the mountains. Of the 700,000kgs of Cabrales cheese which is produced in the area and is so famous for, none of the milk which is used to make it comes from mountain cattle; the vast majority comes from cows kept in stables most of their life and fed on feed concentrates. The 4 producers of Gamonedo cheese which use milk from cows grazed on mountain pastures now sell it under the label of “Gamonedo del Puerto” It’s a real delicacy; a smoked blue cheese, quite expensive at 35,00 Euros a kg but reflects the true price of artisan cheese production with no externalised costs.
The inside of a farmers hut in Vega Maor where he made Gamonedo cheese using the milk from cows grazing the mountain pastures. Sadly he retires this year.
For me it would be lovely to get mixed grazing back to these mountain pastures and not loose the pastures or the wealth of knowledge the traditional farmers possessed. I realise I am asking a lot and many things will need to change before people realise the value of this sustainable system of food production, but if you spent a few days walking in the mountains looking at these pastures and the cows which graze them and then compared it to other systems of meat production you might just agree.