Xalda sheep belongs to Ovis aries celticus trunk. Apart from the archaeological remains encountered in some hill forts, we know for sure that Astures had sheep because of the quotations of two classical authors: one of them in Edictum Diocletiani de Pretiis Rerum 25, where “Asturicensis” wool is mentioned, and the other one in the third book of Geographika, by Estrabo (H. 29-7 e.C.), where we are told about the “sagus” or the gown these people used to wear, which was made from black wool, as this was the colour of their sheep.

In the foundation document of the Oubona Monastery (Tinéu), in 780, “triginta oves” are inventoried. In Oviedo by-laws, in 1274, we are told: «Firstly about the meat: we establish that the meat of the Asturian ram is equivalent to a quarter from the best and very good eighteen money.»

In the Tumbo (matrix) book from Balmonte Monastery (Miranda), we find this quotation: «In this year 1604, sheep from this land are five or six annual “reales”, as this is the way the Monastery is usually paid.»

In 1701, Balmonte Monastery renewed the registration of the Cuevas village population for another 150 years. They paid, altogether, 330 “reales” a year, and, moreover –every fifty years– a sheep for the census taking; one of the residents was in charged with paying in representation of the whole group. The last of these sheep was delivered in 1801.

In 1726, County by-laws from Arenas de Cabrales registered in chapter 16 that those inhabitants who owned sheep and goats would have to watch over a male flock on day-shifts, under penalty of an eight “reales” fine and two-days shifts if they did not fulfil this obligation. The date chosen to gather the sheep at the county pen was July 25th. “Celadores” (guardians) and two experts ordered the weaker ones to be castrated and selected the ones of the best race and abundant wool to be sires.

In 1726, County by-laws from Arenas de Cabrales registered in chapter 16 that those inhabitants who owned sheep and goats would have to watch over a male flock on day-shifts, under penalty of an eight “reales” fine and two-days shifts if they did not fulfil this obligation. The date chosen to gather the sheep at the county pen was July 25th. “Celadores” (guardians) and two experts ordered the weaker ones to be castrated and selected the ones of the best race and abundant wool to be sires.

In 1782, Jovellanos –when speaking about “Vaqueiros” livestock–, pays special attention to their sheep and describes them thus: «It is true that these stocks are small; their sheep seemed a hybrid between “merinas” and common “churras” to me, maybe because of their short-term annual migration, or perhaps because of the excellence of the grass they pasture making the fineness of their wool lie between that of the other two kinds.»

Also, in the 18th century, in the census made by Marqués de la Ensenada, we are told of Asturias having 595,000 sheep exemplars, 353,307 cattle, 278,448 pigs, 197,874 goats and 28,111 horses. The 1865 livestock census registered 361,180 head of sheep.

In the 40’s of the last century, the extinction of the xalda started due to foreign species plantation in communal mountains, making their number decrease in many of the ranges where they used to pasture. Western counties such as Tinéu, Ayande, Salas, Eilao, etc., suffered considerably from these massive plantations in the nearby mountains. In villages like Brañaivente (Salas), some inhabitants had to migrate to Germany, Belgium… because of “La Forestal”, which seized the pastures where cattle, sheep, goats and stud had grazed for thousands of years. We should not forget the fact that, in the East, xaldas were substituted by other races (carranzana, latxa), better milk producers, the focus being on cheese production: “Cabrales”, “Camonéu”, etc.

In other villages, a lack of people and shepherds made the “vecera” disappear: «It was over because there were insufficient people».

Nevertheless, in the 40’s, a lot of xaldas were sold (“añójos”, most of all) in Llaciana and El Bierzu (León). Dealers went to Partido de Sierra (Cangas del Narcea) to buy them, as well as to villages like Mieldes –where flocks were bigger– and fairs like El Puertu (Sumiéu) and Tinéu. The official census at this time was 293,080 sheep, most of them xaldas.

When, in 1982, the xalda sheep is described, its census is very low (hardly 800 females in all the Principality). At that point, the idea of creating an association did not succeed. The numbers of both females and males (which were not xaldos any more in some of the flocks) continued to decrease. It was a species that kept its racial purity but that was very old.

This is how, in 1992, the Asociación de Criadores d’Oveya Xalda –with the aim of preserving the races– was created at last .

The xalda, as we see, is a kind of sheep with a Celtic origin, the same as ousseant, from Brittany; black Wales, from Wales; morite (moor sheep), from the Shetland Islands, in Scotland; skudde, weibe gehörnte heidschnuck and moorschnucke, from Germany.

The “Vecera”

The “Vecera” is a complex organisation that inhabitants from a certain village create to shepherd every family’s flocks (sheep and goats) at the same time. Vecera is also the name given to this flock.

Small livestock was an important economic support in a farmer’s life. The protein contribution they got from these animals was essential in a rather poor diet.

From sheep and goats, milk was used for “cuajada” (curd) or to make cheese, apart from providing wool and leather: «Wool dressed the whole village.»

In those towns where the vecera never existed –at least where people did not remember about it– the distance to the pastures was used as an excuse. The vecera had to leave and come back to the village every single day. During the summer, it went to the top of the mountain. Distance determined whether the vecera could be taken and brought back on the same day. This is why, if the village laid in the depths of the valley, it was not worth it: «We do not have a vecera, don’t you see the pass is very far away?»

In those towns where there were not a lot of goats, these went with sheep. There were also some changes: in village of Vil.l.axime (Quirós), there was only a sheep vecera, but –after the Civil War– the importance of goats increased to the point where they had to create two veceras: sheep and goats.

In winter, when the heavy snowfalls arrived, the vecera could not leave. Then, it stayed in the stalls and sheep and goats were fed with “fuechaos”, which were oak, birch or ash tree leaves. If there was no snow, the vecera went out and could divide in two or more veceruques. This time was bad, females gave birth and then lambs had to be brought down, wolves were around… Then, the organisation changed: shifts were reduced by half and the watch was more frequent: «Shepherding consisted on one day for every six sheep. During the winter, it was four sheep a day». This is how big vecera divided and, so, more people took part in shepherding.

There was also a lamb and a baby goat vecerina. The vecera was very hard for baby sheep because pastures were very far away. The vecerina stayed either at the nearby fields or at a hillside that was let for the purpose in the communal lands. This kind of vecera was organised at the same time as the big one, although –before leaving with the vecerina– lambs could stay in their owners’ stalls or fields. In June or July they were already able to go with the vecera.

Principality by-laws from 1781 give Juntas de Agricultura from each county the possibility of establishing veceres in their parishes.

When April came, a Xunta was held in villages to take a census of the animals of every. Shepherding days were strictly defineded so that there was an equal division of the work. Sheep that were left over after counting and making the shift division were taken into consideration for the following “correura”. Every single detail is still kept in people’s mind: «It was six sheep per day in all the correuras; if there were three, it was a day per every half correuras; the same as for three, was for five, and if there were eight, the same as for six»; «During the winter, you shepherded a day per four sheep; two for eight; for five, the first round one day, and at the fourth round, you shepherded two days».

On the other hand «The one who had only a few often did not have to shepherd». Everybody knew what everyone had to watch over, and no changes were accepted, nor were people allowed not to respect the shifts.

The existence of fines was evident. It was perfectly well understood that nobody could miss his duties because, otherwise, the vecera would run the risk of disappearing immediately.

The shift went from house to house all around the village and always keeping the same order: «Everybody knew the order, and in the afternoon had to take his sign, you knew where the round was, you had to carry the “seña” (sign) with you. Don’t worry, nobody forgot; no one felt like shepherding.»

Perspectivas Futuras

The future for the Xalda sheep is extremely hopeful. Since its foundation, the Asociación de Criadores d’Oveya Xalda (ACOXA) has been carrying out important work in the recovery of the census, attracting new breeders every year and working on the Genealogical Book.

Today, there are more than 5000 females and 200 males registered. Wool is still used to sew traditional costumes. This breeding activity is directed towards lamb production for meat.

«Oveyu Xaldu»

The organoleptic characteristics of Xalda meat have no similarity with lamb meat from foreign races that have been brought into Asturias to the detriment of our own race, which was displaced with the only argument that the others had a better meat production, as a consequence of their bigger size and better adaptation to the systems of intensive stock-breeding that give preference to forced fattening rather that natural raising. The extensive stock-breeding system on which “xaldu” flocks thrive, having extensive lands to roam, and far removed from the prevailing concentration in stables and feeding places, is –perhaps– not the most profitable, but it is a guarantee for the consumer these days, when sanitary scandals caused by the quality of the food we eat follow one after another.

And what we eat is, in this case, a kind of food with a taste that is at once attractive and original, most probably more reminiscent of young goat than of the lamb we are used to. A highly fibrous meat, but also tender, with bright strands and a soft feel, with the necessary fat so that the lean is not dry but the plate does not swim in fat.

To sum up, this is a kind of meat that is recovering –step by step– from the black days where it was about to be lost forever, as our xalda was on the edge of extinction as a race, and only the determination of a few people avoided the disaster. When you choose to consume this product, you are joining these few: flocks will grow to the rhythm the demand establishes. Although it looks like a paradox, eating –sometimes– is the same as preserving that part of nature composed by those animals that offer their meat.»

Francisco Pañeda Alonso