Winter escapes

It feels wrong to say it is really cold here given that I come from Scotland, but it is REALLY  cold. When I head out to assist the foreman of the breeding estate on the days he is alone I wear two sweaters and a light mountaineering jacket. To me it’s a dry, desert-like cold, compared to the driving wind and rain of home. Even if it’s not below zero the warmth leaches out from me as I swing up and down from the wings of the tractor to open gates in the early mornings. To the locals however, the chill comes from the moisture the air carries from the nearby sea and salt marshes. Sometimes it almost feels like it could snow…

A calf bounds from its hiding place in what appears to be wintery conditions. The cold feel to the photograph is actually caused by the light catching the myriad little flying insects born that morning.

A calf bounds from its hiding place among the olive trees. The cold feel to the photograph is actually caused by the light catching the myriad little flying insects born that morning. Watching the tumbling and turning flecks of white as they were blown between copses reminded me of snow blowing across the moorland between clumps of pinetrees in Scotland.

Calves are still being born as we move into the New Year, but the stud bulls have been moved into the fields with the cows and newborns too now.  Just when I think I’m getting a handle on which fields hold which age-group of young males or females, or which sub-section of older animals, something changes. The winter has been very dry so far, with the cold coming early but a crucial period of rain being skipped almost entirely late last year. All the animals on the ranch need to be fed adequately but the bulls coming up to the age where they will be fought need to be in peak condition. They will be seen by buyers from variously ranked arenas and need to epitomise sleek, well filled-out, muscularity. Getting rounded flesh onto the sizeable frames of these animals is no easy task when the grazing is not at its best. In its present state the breeding estate covers about 350 hectares.  However, in the first half of the 20th century and part of the second half the bulls grazed a much larger part of the marshlands here. Gradually, with the advent of intensive fruit and olive cultivation in the area, the land was sold off and the bulls were enclosed. Many neighbouring estates moved up into the mountains, onto marginal land that could not be used for intensive agriculture. The black and blue-roan bulls of Partido de Resina remain, a tiny slice of a low density and biodiverse livestock centred ecosystem, sandwiched between endless legions of orange trees.

Some bulls munching away at their supplementary feed with orange plantations in the background. The ranch occupies a privileged position compared to many in terms of the quality of the grazing, but the bad winter will most likely see the grazing be supplemented for longer than normal.

Some bulls munching away at their supplementary feed with orange plantations in the background. The ranch occupies a privileged position compared to many in terms of the quality of the grazing, but the bad winter will most likely mean that the pasture will have to be supplemented for longer than normal.

Given the reduced space, a lot is at stake when the foreman makes a decision to move animals. Not only in terms of the quality of grazing, but also in terms of how they will interact with their neighbours. Moving the beasts is not too difficult, the enclosure of the estate brought with it a carefully designed system of gates and ‘sleeves’ or tracks between fields. The problems come when, for whatever reasons, bulls or cows decide to leave their respective fields…

Which is why when we spot cow-pats next to the tractors in the morning the air takes on a whole new chill. A lone fighting cow hiding behind a bale in the barn would be no laughing matter. Fortunately, so far this year this has only happened once, and rather than just one cow, a whole group of cows and calves escaped to graze the sleeves overnight. Though by the time we went out to see who the culprits were, they had already returned to their field and were innocently grazing there as they would be any other morning. All well and good, until we take a headcount that is. Somehow there were two heads extra! After much head-scratching and less than muffled cursing from the foreman, we spotted a slightly bulkier animal amongst a group of cows. “There’s a male there!” It was a particularly chunky three year old bull (almost three in real terms) and he looked very contented to be hanging out with the ladies. His opportunistic sidekick turned out to be another less impressive three year old who I suspect followed him over the fence when the hen party passed during the night. They bucked and kicked as we separated them from the others but they knew where they were going, and once they were out of the cows’ field they made a beeline for their own. Guilty as charged: under-age sex pests.

Mother and calf trying to re-unite across a feeding trough, amongst some very spiky undergrowth.

A frosty looking prison. Mother and calf trying to re-unite across a feeding trough, amongst some very spiky undergrowth. It’s not only fencing that separates the fields, but also cactus plants and other spiky barriers.

When I write here during the blazing Andalusian summer, perhaps I will miss these muddy, chilly days, but for now I long for the heat and the dust. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping an eye on that chunky young bull and the corner section of fence that I’m sure he knows is not fully repaired…

Late as it is, the rain still brings mud and misery.

Late as it is, the rain still brings mud and misery.

For now – Happy New Year to readers new and old – until next time!

Robin

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Born this way: Born for the arena

Lets begin on a provocative note. Tongues out. I’m fully aware that what I’m blogging about (and will later write about more formally) is not to everybody’s taste. I hope this serves as an invitation to engage with the topic, rather than condemn it though.

Calf number 4106. Female. Tongue out.

Calf number 4106. Female. Already showing an advanced understanding of how to communicate with the camera.

Over the last few weeks over 30 calves have been born on the estate. I’ve alternated between taking photos and cooing over the fluffy little things as they run, play and sleep (so much sleep!). However, the foreman, working tirelessly to keep track of the new births, has been keen to make sure that when I write about the calves I emphasise that they have been brought into the world to be ‘fought’* in the arena. Though to be honest, this is never far from your mind when weaving among cows that are liable to charge the 4×4 you’re seated in at the slightest (perceived) provocation. It is very apparent that they are born this way. (Ok at this point I’m going to confess to writing this post while listening to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Without shame.)

A scene that conveys exactly what these animals have been bred for. The calf is showing almost ideal charging form: head down, committed and tail up. She can't quite escape her cuteness though, no matter how hard she protests being tagged.

A scene that conveys exactly what these animals have been bred for. The calf is showing almost ideal charging form: head down, committed and tail up. She can’t quite escape her cuteness though, no matter how hard she protests being tagged.

The main concerns when dealing with newborns are to sex them, tag them (on the ear) and also to identify the mother and insure that she has taken to her calf. This might seem straightforward enough, but we’re talking about fighting stock here. Not only are they difficult to manage, but they also live in an opened, lightly wooded landscape (dehesa). This landscape is known for its beauty and biodiversity, rather than for making finding, catching and tagging newborn cattle an easy task. Particularly as the cows excel at hiding their calves alone in hollows or tall vegetation while they graze.

There are various ways of going about the task. At present at Partido de Resina it is done from a 4×4, rather than from horseback. We drive into the field and go to the cows, where the already born calves can sometimes be found too. A headcount is done and we check for signs that a cow has recently given birth or is likely to give birth soon. The obvious signs of the former being ’emptiness’ and a dangling placenta. Sometimes a cow can be seen on her own, looking for a spot to give birth – with a distinctive waddle and raised back. They mostly give birth overnight though.

"If I wish really really hard, they won't see me."

“If I wish really really hard, they won’t see me. Feel the grass. Be the grass. I am the grass. Invisible.”

Once a likely new mother is spotted or suspected, then the field must be carefully searched. People like me (not driving or doing anything more useful than taking notes/photos) have the dubious privilege of being sent aloft in the morning cold to perch precariously on the windowsills of the battered Landcruiser and scan the shadows beneath the olive trees. As well as every likely dip and bush that the mother has been looking at. There’s a blue petrol can in one of the fields that I think is a calf every time I see it out of the corner of my eye. Every time.

A calf found on its own (hiding) is the easiest to tag and identify. The foreman can often jump out and do the deed without the calf even getting up. He does an excellent imitation of a baby bull/cow call, so the mother can then be called over and her number noted.

Calling Mum

Calling Mum over to claim her calf.

Things get more complicated when the calf is at foot or when the mother spots the Landcruiser nearing her calf and rushes over to protect it. There are many cow shaped dents on the vehicle. The cow can usually be driven off or separated from the calf long enough for it to be grabbed, tagged, sexed and released. It’s always touch and go though. Nobody wants to be caught in the open with the calf of a fighting cow in hand. I pity the Landcruiser’s suspension and the wild chases and retreats it has to endure. Not to mention the snorting charges of the angry mothers. Though perhaps it finds moments of solace when the calves seem to momentarily imprint on the vehicle (or the foreman within) and follows as we move off. Tragic, but comical nonetheless.

Foreman and anthropologist alike spend spare moments in the fields frantically scribbling numbers and notes down. I’ve rediscovered the joys of pencils. It’s easy to get numbers and even sex wrong when you have to break off suddenly. Scrambling back to the safety of the Landcruiser as someone shouts “The mother is coming!!”.

I suspect that most people are reading this post for the cute pictures of the little calves, so I’ll conclude with a few more.

Suspicious mother

A suspicious mother observes our approach in the morning sun. The ground is very dry for this time of year.

Gang

Once the number of calves grow, they start to form little play gangs (and sleeping gangs).

Feed

The straw feed the mothers get also serves as a comfy sleeping surface and cosy hiding place.

Checing

A mother moves to check on and also protect her offspring as we enter the field and head towards the calf.

Until next time – don’t forget the foreman’s wish to connect the almost idyllic infancy these calves have with the larger world and purpose of the bulls. It might seem a bit facile to connect the two, but they’re undoubtedly entangled, as much for the aficionado of the bulls as for the commentator concerned with ethics.

*I appreciate that ‘Fought’ is truly a rubbish way of translating lidiado, but I can’t think of any alternative apart from using the Spanish word itself (or one of many other words used to describe what goes on in the arena). ‘Fought’ just has too many clashing connotations in the anglophone world, particularly those that evoke (blood)sport or fairness (as Alexander Fiske-Harrison has pointed out on multiple occasions).

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El Herradero – Handling, bumbling and branding

The last 10 days or so have been packed with different kinds of events on the estate, some of which are singular and some of which are ongoing. Today I want to focus on an event in the singular category: El Herradero, which is an festive day in the bull-breeding calendar when the youngstock get hot-branded. I appreciate that not everybody out there is going to be a fan of hot-branding, but I trust the reader will understand that I’m not in a position to either question or condone the practice. Though it should be noted that such events are closely regulated and there is always a police presence. I’ll no doubt have to write about it all in a lot more detail come my thesis, but for now you’ll have to be satisfied with a brief glimpse into what was a very intense day for livestock and people alike.

Beast escapes

A freshly branded female yearling leaps up and is encouraged to charge a mixture of eager volunteers and gentle coerced friends of the ranch in order to lead it out of the enclosure. The white colour comes from the spray the wounds are treated/protected with.

The males and females are done separately, most of them being of just about a year of age. Aside from the breeding estate brand (hierro) on the side of the hindquarters, the yearlings of Partido de Resina also get a brand higher up the just below the tail, indicating which collective the estate belongs to. In this case, the first rank Unión de Criadores de Toros de Lidia (~Union of Breeders of Fighting Bulls). All on the same side, the branding also includes the last digit of the year on the lower shoulder and an individual number across the midsection. To cap this off, the ears are snipped in a ranch specific pattern.

The boys are branded in the branding crush, which is a brutally efficient arrangement of restraints and doors. The girls are done in the open and I suppose this is where the festivity in the day is most evident. Young and not-so-young fans of the pabloromero bulls get an opportunity to face down a smaller version of the animals they love in the ‘arena’ (a corral). The bolder fans stand in the centre and receive the inevitable charge of the youngster, catching the horns so others can rush in and help restrain it. To the credit of their breeding, not one yearling came out of the holding pen and attempted to flee.

A manriqueño lad receives a bouncing charge from a female yearling. The onlookers balanced on the fence and behind the tree guards ready to assist once he has a grip.

A manriqueño lad and friend receives a bouncing charge from a female yearling. The onlookers balanced on the fence and behind the tree guards ready to assist once he has a grip.

I was able to take very few notes and photos on the day of the herradero as the foreman is very keen for me to get stuck in and learn by doing. In the morning I was encouraged to do the dirty work at the tail end of the crush, while later on I was gently pressured into showing some Scottish courage with the fighting cows.

Refusing to be outdone, a lad from the neighbouring and rival town of Pilas takes on a particularly dynamic mover.

Refusing to be outdone, a lad from the neighbouring and rival town of Pilas takes on a particularly dynamic mover.

The technique for an ideal reception and turning over of a yearling isn’t something easily mastered in a morning, but it is something one can have a go at. Unlike the much more dangerous events with more mature stock.

A still from a video of me tackling my first yearling. My years of judo failed me as I managed to get a hold of the horns but didn't manage to get a nice turn to flip the yearling onto her side.

A still from a video of me tackling my first yearling. My years of judo failed me as I managed to get a hold of the horns but didn’t manage to get a nice turn to flip the yearling onto her side. I was closely watched to ensure not only my safety, but the safety of the young cows in my unskilled hands.

I had spent the morning being the butt of Robin Hood jokes, only instead of Robin del bosque (of the woods), I was Robin del rabo (of the tail), which is is used to hold the bullocks over in the crush. By the end of the day however, I was ‘blooded’, having successfully managed to receive three yearlings and assisted with numerous others. The lunch in the courtyard that followed was well earnt. I don’t think the nickname Robin del rabo is going to be forgotten anytime soon though – perhaps a necessary corrective to anthropologist’s arrogance?!

The day was yet another example of the close links between the bull-breeding estate and the surrounding communities, bringing together people of different ages and different backgrounds to celebrate a shared appreciation of the pabloromero line of fighting bulls.

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Baby steps: Handling calves in the corrals

This is going to be a very hard week of corralling and putting stock in the crush for the vets to check for Tb. Nevertheless, things have got off to a good start as today I was designated the noisy and messy job of apprehending the recently born calves who were caught up in the corralling and escorting them to the receiving field to be reunited with their mothers.

Quito the tame bull waits patiently by the door he knows he will be let out of as his job is just to guide the cows and calves into the corrals. He is castrated, was originally intended for film work and is probably the only bovine you can approach on the whole estate for a mutually appreciated scratch.

Quito the tame bull waits patiently by the door he knows he will be let out of as his job is just to guide the cows and calves into the corrals. He is castrated, was originally intended for film work and is probably the only bovine you can approach on the whole estate for a mutually appreciated scratch. The little ball of fluff at the bottom left is a female calf, maybe a couple of weeks old.

Unlike sheep, calves have surprisingly little to grip on to (for the inexperienced handler perhaps…!). These little monsters also seem to struggle much more than the foals I’ve handled and a couple of them put in some good charging efforts – fighting stock for sure.

beast

Number 4103: a beast in the making.

Towards the end of this week we’ll be looking to brand the yearlings, who were separated from their mothers a few weeks back. I imagine they will be somewhat more difficult to handle than the calves. I’m anticipating bruises. Particularly as the pabloromeros are a notoriously recalcitrant line of fighting bulls.

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Opening moves: Getting things wrong in the field

It’s been a very busy week, with lots of interesting things happening at Partido de Resina. However, the most important thing I have observed and learned about this week is not how newborn calves are caught and tagged.

A calf born this morning, its mother unwilling to relenquish her new charge for tagging.

A calf born this morning, its mother unwilling to relinquish her new charge for tagging. Excuse the poor quality photo, I’ve a camera on the way, but this was taken on my phone from a moving 4×4.

Nor was it how the horns of young bulls are sheathed to prevent injuries in the field.

A young bull of the 2010 generation in the stocks to have his horns wrapped.

A young bull of the 2010 generation in the stocks to have his horns wrapped.

Nor was it the testing of another young bull in an informal event on the ranch.

Young bullfighter meets young bull in the plaza at Partido de Resina.

Young bullfighter meets young bull in the plaza at Partido de Resina.

Rather, my abiding memory of the week is of getting gates wrong: going to the wrong gate, getting gates jammed, mistiming things, causing animals to get stuck and most of all just being too darn slow! Opening and closing gates might seem like a simple thing compared to all the other things that occur on bull-breeding estates, but they’re surprisingly tricky. To get the bulls into the stocks or the arena, or to separate different lots of animals, they must come into the corrals, which is a complex of pens with gates that can be opened and closed from walkways above. The bulls, cows or castrated animals will try to stay together and rush through gateways, closely packed, horns clipping the walls and each other. The potential for injuries or even just damage to the horns is enormous and a badly timed slamming of a door could be very costly.

Bovines rushing through a gateway. The large red animals are not fighting stock and are castrated - they make it easier to move the bulls as they are somewhat more biddable and the bulls will generally follow them in 'herd-mode'.

Bovines rushing through a gateway. The large red animals are not fighting stock and are castrated – they make it easier to move the bulls as they are somewhat more biddable and the bulls will generally follow them in ‘herd-mode’.

The foreman (mayoral), watching a bull below closely to judge the best moment to open the door and allow the animal to move through.

The foreman (mayoral), watching a bull below closely to judge the best moment to open the door and allow the animal to move through.

The man in charge of all this is the mayoral, who over the last week has managed a motley array of seasoned vaqueros (stock-handlers), local and more distant friends and aficionados (~fans) who come and help out or just to see the bulls, and a keen but clumsy anthropologist. The mayoral must deal with my mistakes and those of others, and also make sure we know what to do the next time. Mayorals are certainly not unsung heroes in the world of the bulls, but they’re not the centre of attention either and the work they do must be incredibly stressful. Definitely worthy of a salute with the obligatory flat-cap. Hopefully in the coming weeks and months I’ll learn to judge the appropriate moment to open or close a gate, or even get the right gate at the right time like a proper vaquero. With that, I’ll also hopefully begin to get a feel for the way the corrals and the wider estate have been built or moulded over time through interactions with fighting stock, who in turn grow up in and are moulded by this environment.

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Learning to wield my ‘fat finger’ appropriately

Everytime I hear “el dedo gordo“, I can’t help but translate it in my head as the fat finger/digit, rather than just the thumb. Today I spent a lot of time thinking about thumbs and where they should go and how firmly they should be applied, as I spent the better part of the day with José and his horses, who works at the bull-breeding estate when required. It was my first official, but informal session on a Spanish trained horse with these guys. The aim being to ultimately get me fit to work alongside them with fighting stock (hopefully!).

Charrán

Charrán (rascal) – José’s very pretty PRE (Pura Raza Española) stallion, an example of the breed we call ‘Andalusian’ in Britain.

Charrán, the rascal in the above picture (who is not a stock horse), and I were put in a small roundpen and left to learn to walk properly after an initial lecture about fat finger placement. José then disappeared inside, only to periodically reappear and make comments about my riding ability or lack of it – he was particularly keen that Charrán and I generate a good swing of the mosquero in walk. The mosquero being the thing that goes on the forehead of the horse to keep flies away and look pretty – I’ve forgotten what we call it in English; fly fringe maybe?

Two hours later we were happily cantering around the field next to the pen, flirting with imaginary mares behind the fence. After hosing Charrán down, we moved on to José’s house to have lunch and look at photos of José riding when he was younger (he’s now in his seventies I think) – he looked much, much smarter than I do and I hope to scan some of the black and white photos of him and his horses to post later.

It may not feel like anthropological work while I’m in the saddle, but sifting through and typing up the copious notes generated by all the various encounters and interactions between thumbs, reins, stallions and charismatic informants certainly does.

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Welcome note

Greetings from Andalucía and welcome to my blog, where I’ll be posting about some of the encounters that occur over the course of my doctoral fieldwork in the marshlands southwest of Sevilla. You can read more about by project on my about page, but the gist of it is that I’ll be looking at the world of the bulls in 21st century Spain through the relationship between the town of Villamanrique de la Condesa and local bull-breeding estates. In particulur, the professionals at Partido de Resina (formerly Pablo Romero) have kindly agreed to host me as a kind of apprentice bull-person. I aim to showcase this incredible world and how it comes into being through the humans, bulls, horses and other entities that inhabit it.

Please link, repost and share responsibly with due attribution to this blog and myself as the responsible researcher/author/photographer. I am your first port of call if you have any questions, comments or worries about content posted on this blog or about my project in general.

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