Experts say that the Talaveran sheep was born from the confluence of the two great sheep breeds, Manchega and Merina, which border us to the east and west, and that the resulting hybrids were subjected, over the course of several centuries, to a selective process in which factors such as climate, terrain and the farming system played their roles, resulting in physically and genetically homogenous animals.
In our Arañuelo region of Toledo, one of the areas where this breed originated, the farmers of the past, like those of the present, and due to the poor soil here, combined arable and livestock farming to make farms profitable. The nutritional deficiencies of the pastures paradoxically result in an advantage for the sheep that feed directly on this land; they are extremely hardy, the main quality required in extensive flocks.
The traditional saying ‘I’d rather have no ears than no sheep’ reflects the historic importance of sheep in this area. In the old days, our sheep provided meat for, among other purposes, the ¨olla¨, now renamed ¨cocido¨ (a chickpea and meat stew). It was an everyday dish which was part of the basic diet of our grandparents. Sheep were also used for milking, albeit at limited times and in limited production, to produce a type of cheese that is characteristic, and different from those from other parts of the world. Sheep were also essential for fertilising fields left fallow, and ploughed fields prior to sowing. This was carried out through the practice of ‘redileo’, or taking a flock to leave manure on enclosed fields. It was important because at that time, there were no chemical fertilisers. Finally, the Talaveran breed produced high-quality wool, which is why, in the 1950s, it attracted the attention of writers, who got to know it through the famous market in Talavera, the town from which the breed received its name.
From that moment on, a period of glory began for our sheep; the prices for wool were more than attractive; specimens were in demand for other regions, and the census of the breed approached one million individuals. It took part in morphological and wool competitions, winning awards at the renowned Feria del Campo, the most important livestock event of the time. But this situation lasted only a few years, as the appearance on the market of synthetic fibres caused the collapse of the trade in textile fibres of animal origin and, consequently, producers had to rethink their objectives so that their farms could survive. Some farmers opted for meat production, so fast-growing breeds were introduced to ensure higher yields, but they also needed better feed and more careful management. Other farms turned to milk production, buying specialised animals and, to a greater or lesser extent, housing their flocks rather than letting them out to graze.
Faced with these circumstances, the Talaveran breed found itself out of place, unable to find a commercial space to maintain its purity, and so it plunged into a vertiginous fall until it crashed to face the spectre of extinction.
The present day begins in 1992, when a group of breeders, upset by the situation of the breed, aware of its historical and cultural value, aware of the recommendations of the FAO and, encouraged by the help of the Administration, created the Association of Breeders of the Talaveran Sheep Breed (AGRATA). At that time, the census already reflected alarmingly low numbers.
Looking to the future, and analysing the trends that we can be glimpse, it is safe to say that the Talaveran breed has opportunities, not only for survival, but also for expansion.
Here are some signs of hope:
The growing need to protect forests, non-cultivable land and natural spaces from fires. Talaveran sheep, are extremely hardy, an essential quality for this task, and that makes them ideal for this mission.
The ability of these animals, by virtue of the aforementioned adaptation to unfavourable situations, to ‘produce cheaply’, with little or no need for supplementary feed and, consequently, to remain almost unaffected by the costs involved, such as high world cereal prices.
Demand for quality natural products, which indigenous breeds can best supply. They compensate for any shortcomings in quantity with their high quality.
Awareness on the part of the different administrations that conserving the genetic heritage of our breeds, as well as conserving a cultural asset, is an act of foresight, in case at some point we need to incorporate ancestral virtues of traditional breeds into the livestock of the future.
J. M. Alía, Lagartera, November 2021
The photos are by Pili and Julián