AG: Antonio Monteiro, you are raising at the moment six woolly donkeys of the Miranda breed in the region of Castelo Rodrigo. How did this passion grow and why are these donkeys so dear to you?
AM: During a survey of cliff birds in the Douro International Natural Park, in 1995-1998, my wife and I noticed these tall and strong woolly donkeys in the Miranda plains, with their white mouth, white around the eyes and woolly ears. I realized that they were similar to the Zamora-Leone breed from the other side of Spanish border. I went, together with my wife Ana, to meet some Spanish breeders in the village of Sayago. We then decided to encourage the realization of a zoo-technical study of the Miranda breed. This research, financially supported by the newly created Douro International Natural Park, and done by engineer Luisa Samões, identified the distinctive traits of the Miranda breed.
With this 1999 report, we went to meet the department of agriculture, which then recognized the Miranda donkey as a distinct breed in 2001. Together with some friends, we set up the association for the study and protection of donkeys in Portugal, the AEPG, with the Miranda breed as a main focus. This NGO still exists and is doing a great job at promoting and organizing events about rural issues especially. My wife Ana and myself also decided to start breeding a few donkeys to contribute to this conservationist project. Since 1999, we managed to produce 50 young donkeys, which is not insignificant given that it their gestation lasts for a whole year and that the whole current population is estimated at around 800 donkeys.
AG: Do people still use it for agriculture?
AM: This donkey is quite strong and well adapted to local conditions. It is a heavy and peaceful worker. Local farmers – probably in the range of 300 of them in the Miranda, Vimioso and Mogadouro area - still use it for their daily farming activities: ploughing, transporting wood for fire, etc. Some of them now also breed donkeys to produce young ones, which they then sell.
AG: People like Eugène Ayrault, back in 1867, and more recently Carlos Pereira (2009), tell us that there have historically been connections in various directions between the Miranda breed and two other woolly breeds, the French Baudet du Poitou and the Spanish Zamora-Leone breed. For example, some believe that the Baudet du Poitou would be of Spanish origin, that the Miranda breed would actually be quite a recent breed, also of Spanish origin, dating back to the 19th century (Pereira, 2009: 47). It also seems that a lot of mule and donkey trade took place since the 17th century for export to Brazil, through a Poitou-Spain-Portugal-Brazil chain, taking advantage to some extent of the Santiago Pathways before crossing the Atlantic. What are your views on this?
AM: The Santiago pathways story sounds quite romantic… I sometimes doubt as well about these stories involving the trade of animals on such long distances. This being said, the Miranda and the Zamora-Leone breeds are definitely connected. I believe that the wool probably came from the Zamora breed, a more northern and rustic animal, Miranda donkeys having less wool. Zamora donkeys have wool on the legs and feet, which is extremely rare for Miranda ones.
Another difference between the two breeds is their size. Zamora farming differs significantly from Tras-os-Montes farming. In Spain, there was an intensive production of mules which explains why the Zamora breed is bigger and stronger. That type of selection did not take place in Tras-os-Montes with its small property divisions, more mountaineous landscapes, higher population density, lower standard of living and less intensive farming. The animals were selected for heavy work in the flat fields of the Miranda planalto, not for mule production. Given how easy it was to cross the “raia seca” border with Alcanices-Zamora, there was a certainly an intense animal trade across borders. But the Portuguese way of life in rural areas always promoted smaller animals than the Zamoran, and also very docile and calm ones.
AG: Historically, there has been a competition between breeding mules for agriculture - which required crossing a mare and a preferably large donkey - and breeding horses for war. Back to at least the 14th century, and certainly up to the middle of the 18th century, there have been "anti-mule" laws restricting the production of mules to make sure enough horses would be raised to serve in the army. The Portuguese king, D. Joao II, even imposed in the 15th century the death penalty for anyone shoeing a mule for riding purposes (Pereira, 2009: 30). Do we still find traces of this history, notwithstanding the fact that the Miranda donkey might be a relatively recent breed? You seem to think that the large woolly Miranda donkeys were not used to produce mules. But were they used as a substitute for mules to get around anti-mule laws?
AM: I believe that the Miranda donkey is quite an ancient breed, which does not mean of course that it has always been used for the same tasks over time. Also, the involvement with mules probably was a more intense activity in other parts of Portugal, such as possibly in the Alentejo. Over the last 100-150 years, the Miranda breed has been very scarcely used for mule production… Of course, this leaves unanswered the difficult question of the origins of the mules found in Tras-os-Montes in the 40s, until the 60s. They probably came from the south. Miranda male stallions were crossed with Miranda mares, but there were very few horses for that. In general, people crossed donkeys with donkeys and occasionally stallions with donkey mares. But more research is needed on this.
AG: Are there any connections between the Miranda donkeys and the Alentejo?
AM: Miranda cows used to be very widespread all over Portugal in the 1940s, including in the Alentejo. They were our Portuguese top rustic medium-heavy tractors. The same did not happen with Miranda donkeys. Perhaps because donkeys were so abundant in Portugal, with several regional varieties, some of which have now gone extinct: from Alcobaça, Sintra, the Sado, the Algarve, the left bank of the Guadiana. In the Beiras, there was probably a mix of breeds. In the northern mountains they tended to prefer horses and cows to donkeys. In Alentejo, there is a strong influence of the Andalusian breed and I believe that there is no connection between Alentejo donkeys and the Miranda breed.
AG: What is the future of the Miranda donkey?
AM: We will probably be able to maintain a population of around 300 individuals in the Miranda region. People here like this animal a lot, even if very few still use it for farming. And perhaps we will be able to preserve another population in the range of 300 mares in holiday houses along the Portuguese coast, for urban people with small farms near cities or for alternative neo-rural farms who keep them in groups of 5-15 animals, for tourism, tracking or farming activities, including milk production.
AG: To conclude, tell us one or two anecdotes about one or two of your donkeys.
AM: I remember Curro, a donkey that jumped the mares at the rythm of 3 jumps in 15 minutes! He was quite … active and effective with female donkeys. He was reacting very well when I called him too, almost like a dog. At some point in spring, as he was near our guesthouse, people could not sleep. One guest told me that he heard him barking every hour: at 1 o’clock at night, then at 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,….
I also recall another experience with a group of donkeys. I brought them with a friend to a place, 10 km away. And then on the way back, the night fell and we decided to ride two of them and to speed up as it was getting darker. This led to a lot of confusion and I fell down. I was lying on the floor, surrounded by galloping donkeys. Then, a large mare ran in my direction with the intention of attacking me, as donkeys tend to do with dogs and wolves. It was really dark. But as soon as she realized that it was me, she just avoided me at the last second and went her way.
Pictures: Antonio Monteiro
Reference: Carlos Pereira (2009), Des origines du Baudet du Poitou, La Crèche: Geste éditions, 195p. + annexes