Walking - Vías Pecuarias

Vías Pecuarias are arteries that provide entrance into the heart and soul of backwoods Andalucia. © Michelle Chaplow
Vías Pecuarias provide entrance into the heart of backwoods Andalucia.

Vías Pecuarias

Andalucia is covered with what are known as Vías Pecuarias. They are a network of paths or trails that have been used in prior times traditionally to transport livestock to and from pastureland or to market. They can vary in size from mostly forgotten impassable trails to wider, well-used roads.

Vías Pecuarias afford the walker an unequalled chance to experience nature away from the more popular parques naturales or other typical places where outdoors people choose to commune with nature. They wind their way through the land in a way that could only come from being part of the environment for many, many years. Vías Pecuarias are arteries that provide entrance into the heart and soul of backwoods Andalucia.

For those that shy away from the bustle of the coastal lifestyle in exchange for the basic tranquillity of the interior and the beauty of hills and valleys, the system of Vías Pecuarias are a unique treasure. The sheer longevity of their existence makes it possible to access areas of Andalucia simply and unobtrusively. Vías Pecuarias, due to their historical heritage, do not crisscross the land without sense but are a network which connects isolated pueblos (towns) to each other. These were the highways of the past centuries because when people travelled from town to town hundreds of years ago, they did so by way of Vías Pecuarias.

The history of Vías Pecuarias goes back centuries. As far back as the 13th century, Spain’s Vías Pecuarias were institutionalised in law and came under the King’s protection. Taxes were charged to the ganaderos (raisers of livestock) for use of the paths, to cross bridges, or traverse landowners estates. These paths were traditionally used twice during the year – around May, when the ganaderos would take their animals on to their summer pastures and again around November, when they would transport the livestock to their winter pastures. This freedom of movement was integral to the manner of livestock breeding utilised in Spain.

The existence of Vías Pecuarias has never been without conflict. Ganaderos were often at odds with farmers because their needs were so different. Range animals constantly posed a threat to crops, especially if the Vía Pecuaria ran through farmland as it often did. There were many cases of altercations but by the 17th century it became clear that the herders had gained the upper hand in the eyes of the law. By this time the money raised from the wool trade contributed a great deal to the coffers of the crown. Again and again, the Vías Pecuarias were afforded Royal protection.

Although Vías Pecuarias have survived centuries of challenges from different fronts, these medieval carry-overs are facing perhaps their greatest challenge today. This challenge comes from the rampant development in areas like Andalucia that has changed the landscape over the last few decades. Gone are the wide open spaces and in their place are blocks upon blocks of holiday flats and villas. In the face of this rampant development the traditional agrarian lifestyle has been pushed from the forefront, taken over by the hunt for large, quick profits.

Over the last few decades the responsibility for Vías Pecuarias has changed. In 1995, the responsibility for these pathways was passed from the Crown to the Autonomous regions. The Junta de Andalucía (the government of the Andalucian Autonomous Region) has passed legislation to protect these paths which it states consists of a network of some 25,000 km throughout the region.

In 1998 the Junta passed a decree specifically dealing with Vías Pecuarias, stating that they are “possessions of public use”, that although their existence has never been in question, “still they are being usurped”, and that their “alternative uses” like bicycling, horseback riding, and mountain biking has the Junta’s support. Even more interesting, it has pledged to reclaim some of the pathways that have been cut by development, although with the collaboration of the property owners who are affected by the Vías Pecuarias.

This can mean a great deal of trouble for unwitting owners of a finca who purchased land without doing their due diligence. With the newly-sparked focus on the medio ambiente (environment) and the protection of green areas in the light of the rampant unorganized (and sometimes illegal) construction that has marked the last few decades in Andalucia, the government is taking the protection of these paths seriously. This might mean that your land might actually partially be “public land” – something that has become an unwanted surprise to more than a few landowners.

Of course, such situations can be avoided by having done the proper research beforehand. There is a registry of Vías Pecuarias that exist in each province in Andalucia. It them, the Vías Pecuarias are listed by community, along with other important statistics. This information should also be available from your local ayuntamiento (town hall), usually from the Oficina del Catastro (Land Registry Office). Hence, there should be no confusion as to this type of access to your land if the proper homework has been done beforehand.

Vías Pecuarias are medieval paths that not only take you from one point to another but can also take you back into time by affording the walker a chance to see the country much as travellers would have seen it centuries ago. However, for the unwitting property owner, these trails can possibly become an irritant. It’s a case of “buyers beware”. No matter what, Vías Pecuarias are here to stay.

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