'Pigsticking' is the practice of hunting wild boar on horseback with spears. The sport dates back to Roman times and is making a comeback in Spain. Animal rights activists are outraged.
In northern Spain, prehistoric cave paintings depict early humans stalking wild boar with spears. Later, the Romans hunted boar on horseback across the Spanish meseta, or central plateau.
Now that same landscape hosts Madrid's mirrored skyscrapers. But in their shadow, a handful of ancestral landowners are reviving the ancient hunting ritual of pigsticking, which is hunting wild boar on horseback with spears.
Animals are cornered and stabbed to death with long, bladed spears. Hunters eat what they kill or export it.
This is part of a push toward sustainable land use in Spain. Rural communities are looking for ways to use farms and ranches which have been abandoned as people migrate to cities for jobs. Locals also see it as part of rural tradition.
"For thousands of years, the only way to get a boar was to chase it with a horse. There was no other weapon," Ramiro Maura told DW in an interview. His great-grandfather established his family's ranch near Madrid at the turn of the 20th century.
"Then firearms started, from shotguns to rifles, and from rifles to automatic rifles, and we keep going," he said. "How can we protect the ancient ways of hunting, when there's no limit to the capability of mankind to make more sophisticated weapons?"
Honoring tradition, preserving the land
Hunting with firearms is legal in Spain, but Maura sees pigsticking as a more natural, traditional way of hunting. He and his fellow pigstickers hunt free-range wild animals, and eat what they kill or export it. Germany is currently the prime destination for wild boar meat from Spain.
If Maura's ranch weren't maintained as a hunting reserve, it might be vulnerable to wildfires that ravage Spain's increasingly empty countryside each summer.
While northern Europe's population shift to cities began gradually in the 18th century or earlier, the move away from rural areas in Spain only occurred over the past few decades. There are many areas in the Spanish countryside, where everyone is well over the age of 60.
"That's the thing that makes me most sad. Only five percent of us now live in the country," hunter Jaime Patiño told DW. He wore his grandfather's leather chaps and a 19th century-style suit jacket as he prepred to leave for a pigsticking trip.
Pigsticking's roots in Spain run deep. Cave paintings in Altamira, near the northern Spanish coastal city of Santander, show humans hunting boar with spears. These paintings are believed to be thousands of years old. The sport was popular in Roman Iberia and also much later in colonial India. The founder of the Boy Scouts movement, Robert Baden-Powell, won pigsticking championships and wrote a book in 1889 about the practice.
Animal rights activists condemn practice
The sport went largely unnoticed by animal rights groups in Spain until last summer, when the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha, south of the Spanish capital, codified pigsticking into updated hunting regulations. Rules now govern how many riders may be armed and limit hunting to full-sized boar during certain times of year, outside their mating season.
"It's something I think most Spanish citizens are not aware of. If they were, I'm sure a great percentage of them would be against this kind of cruel sport," said Sharon Nuñez, a spokeswoman for the group Animal Equality. She said her group was adding pigsticking to its anti-hunting campaigns.
The animal rights movement is growing in Spain and claimed victory with a ban on bullfighting in Spain's autonomous region of Catalonia, which took effect last year. Practices like pigsticking pose a dilemma for modern Spain as it struggles to strike a balance between rural traditions and a progressive society.
"It's difficult to reconcile these traditions," said José Manuel Calvo, opinion editor at Spain's leading El País newspaper. "We try to make a distinction between the roots of a culture and customs of the rural world, and the brutality. Things that we in the 21st century can't let go of."
'Brutal' practice gains popularity
Since being added to hunting regulations last summer, pigsticking's popularity has grown, bolstered by groups like the Pigsticking International Club, which describes itself as a "gentlemen's club for hog-hunters." Ranch owner Maura's group is called the Pigsticking Club of Spain. The club boasts more than 6,000 supporters on Facebook, and hosts guest hunters from around the world.
Even for expert riders, it sometimes takes all day to stalk a boar and chase it through sandy terrain and scrubby oak brush. Once the hunters corner the animal, they stab it to death with nine foot (three meter) bladed spears. Enthusiasts say any brutality is simply what exists in nature, among meat-eaters.
"You cannot understand how nature works if you don't see what's going on," Patiño said. "It's very important that children know how the eagle eats the mouse, and the fox eats the eagle, and it goes on. It's nature, and it's life."