10 May 2002

Bravo bulls – bred

for the ring

Most British farmers thinking of moving abroad focus on

Canada, New Zealand or France. Few have considered

Spain. Things are certainly different there, but opportunities

exist, as Europe editor, Philip Clarke, discovered

DRIVING through the paddocks at El Romeral farm in the Andalucian "dehesa" to the north of Seville is a little like being on safari.

Herds of "wild" animals gently saunter across the undulating grasslands or doze placidly under shady trees. But woe-betide anyone who dares to venture outside the safety of the 4WD.

The animals in question are bulls, fighting bulls bred for the countrys numerous bull-rings. Their raw aggression can be sensed even from the sanctuary of the Land Rover.

Breeding these Bravo cattle is a specialist business. From the day they are born, the aim is to keep them as wild as possible.

When the calves are weaned at six months old, the males and females are then separated and moved to different parts of the farm, where they spend the next four to five years with as little interference as possible.

A few will be singled out as potential stud bulls and will be tested for aggression in the field by men on specially-bred horses, who will goad the animal with wooden lances to provoke an attack. "If the bull charges the horse repeatedly, he is probably suitable for breeding," says Ignacio Rufino, of Seville-based D&C, which manages the farm.

The females are also selected for aggression at two years old. This time they are taken to the farms own bull-ring and provoked with a drape to attack – the bulls are never allowed in a ring until the day they fight.

Less than 20% of the females make the grade at El Romeral to be retained for future breeding. The rest are either sold for low-grade beef or to less prestigious farms for breeding.

At any one time there are about 1200 fighting bulls and cows on the farm, though only around 100/year actually head to the bull-rings.

They are traditionally sold in batches of seven. "Fight nights" in Spain involve three matadors who take on two bulls each from the same farm, with one extra bull supplied as back-up.

About two-thirds of the bulls fight at four to five years old, weighing in at around 550kg and known as "toros". The other third are sent younger – at three to four years old – and are known as "novillos".

Top prices are paid by the proprietors from Madrid, Seville and Pamplona, who take the pick of the crop each year, parting with anything between k6000 (£3660) and k9000 (£5500) for the strongest and best conditioned animals. More run-of-the-mill sorts fetch about k3500 (£2150) each, going to the less-prestigious "corridas" and fairs in local towns and villages.

The Bravo cattle also qualify for some of the headage payments under the common agricultural policy (CAP), providing a further boost to income. The bulls get the first beef special premium (BSP) payment worth 210 euros (£128) a head, but they do not qualify for the slaughter premium as they are not killed at an abattoir. The cows can also receive a suckler cow premium (SCP) if they are covered by a non-fighting bull.

But while the returns are high compared with meat-producing animals, so are the costs. Grass may be the staple diet for some of the year, but in a region which sees sunshine on over 300 days/year, the growing season is short and there is a heavy reliance on bought-in concentrates.

"There are also high stock losses due to the vigorous nature of the animals and the extensive way in which they are produced," says Mr Rufino. "And handling fighting bulls involves a lot of manual labour and a big investment in specialised yard facilities."

Water also has to be pumped throughout the 3500ha (8650 acre) farm from an 800,000cu m central lagoon, while stocking rates have to be kept below 1.5LU/ha to qualify for subsidies.

"Some years the enterprise makes a profit, some years it makes a loss. But that is not the prime consideration with this activity," says Mr Rufino.

As for the ethics of raising fighting bulls, and bull-fighting in general, the Spanish have no reservations. "It is part of our culture and our art. To ban bullfighting would be like trying to ban your Royal family.

"The bulls themselves have the best, most natural and longest life of any farm animal. And when they die, they die with honour, just as the matador does should he get killed."

Bred for raw aggression, a Bravo fighting bull weighs up the opposition.