Every autumn, whenever the wind blows from the north or the east, the sky over Etxalar
sees the passing of thousands of pigeons. More than 600 years ago, a shepherd decided to throw stones at them. When a bishop saw them descending, he encouraged the shepherd to place nets to catch them. That is how this singular form of hunting
began; it is unique in the Iberian peninsula and has been practised since the days of the shepherd. Through history the event has had celebrity spectators such as Emperor Napoleon III or Kings Alfonso XII and XIII, and is now classified as a Site of Cultural Interest
. Trepas, zatarras - wooden paddles, nets - and shotguns
are used in the season at the Usateguieta mountain pass. You can admire the process and get to know the tricks and secrets of the palomeras in guided visits
in autumn, or visit Etxalar on the Día de las palomeras
Given that the Pyrenean landscape where this type of hunting is done is delightful with or without pigeons, we suggest that you take a walk through the area during the rest of the year.
Pigeons are hunted at this point of the Pyrenees in a mountainous cirque, a dip in the mountainside that the birds fly over marked out by the peaks of Mendikarri, Txorilepo and Lakain, continuing through Gaztelepo and "la Cincuenta" in Larmendi and the Usateguieta pass.
The trepas are 10-20-metre-high towers or platforms, camouflaged with vegetation. They are arranged in the form of a funnel. The further they are away from the nets, the greater the distance between them. The palomeros, who stand at the start of the route, wave zatarras while they shout. This utensil is simply a 1-metre-long wooden stick with a white cloth stuck on the end, but the sound it makes when shaken resembles a shotgun being fired.
As the pigeons approach, the paddles are thrown. They are made of wood and painted white, similar to table tennis bats, and they imitate a falcon's attack. The reaction of the flock of birds is to group together and descend almost to ground level.
Then the nets play their part. Six are used currently (Kalamua, Monua, Elutsa - the biggest one - and Miarra are the first original ones: Fortuna was placed in 1869 and Lakaina in 1920). Attached to the ground and raised by pulleys to make a form of inclined planes, they work with a system of counterweights. When the palomero pulls a lever, the nets fall down at great speed and trap the birds as they fall.
A second bugle call is heard, after which the riflemen come into action. Their hunting posts belong the local municipal council, and they have been auctioned every years since 1949. This is not the case of the nets, which belong to individuals, specifically the Gaztelu family. This situation led to many lawsuits such as the one by the local priest; breaking all the rules, he set up his own net and he only took it down after the courts ruled against him.