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In northern Spain, sheep farmers feel chill winds of coronavirus

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Breeder Miguel Angel Rivilla helps a lamb to suckle on its mother during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bercial, Spain, April 14, 2020. Picture taken April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

Breeder Miguel Angel Rivilla helps a lamb to suckle on its mother during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bercial, Spain, April 14, 2020. Picture taken April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

REUTERS

Breeder Miguel Angel Rivilla helps a lamb to suckle on its mother during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bercial, Spain, April 14, 2020. Picture taken April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

At this time of year, Miguel Angel Rivilla is usually swamped with work, selling his prized sheep to markets throughout Spain for "lechal" - a cherished dish of roasted, unweaned lamb popular at Easter and other times of celebration.

But as with so many businesses in a globalised economy, the coronavirus has managed to impact this tiny community of barely 100 people in rural northern Spain, where the sweeping flat farmlands are ideal for rearing sheep.

"Everything has stopped," said Rivilla, who farms some 1,800 animals, with up to 500 lambs born each lambing cycle.

"We can't find anybody to shear the sheep. We're seeing big losses of 30% to 40%... I've never seen anything like it."

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Breeder Miguel Angel Rivilla works in his farmyard during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bercial, Spain, April 14, 2020. Picture taken April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

Breeder Miguel Angel Rivilla works in his farmyard during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bercial, Spain, April 14, 2020. Picture taken April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

REUTERS

Breeder Miguel Angel Rivilla works in his farmyard during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bercial, Spain, April 14, 2020. Picture taken April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

Normally Rivilla sells meat to distributors who sell it on to butchers or directly to restaurants and other buyers.

Over the Easter period, "cordero lechal", which involves the slow roasting of meat from lambs younger than 35 days old that were only ever fed their mother's milk, is among the most popular regional delicacies.

But while at the beginning of Spain's now six-week-long coronavirus lockdown some meat was still selling, the market has now completely dried up, Rivilla says. The distributors can't come, and the butchers and restaurants are closed.

"Some are freezing the meat, but what's frozen will be on the market in three or four months' time and then we will be in the same situation. The price of the sheep we are taking out will never rise," he said.

In the meantime, he continues to drive the sheep and lambs out to pasture, watch over them, and keep them sheared and fed.

"If the lamb gets past (the age of 35 days), they don't buy it but you still have to feed it. The sheep eat, which means money, time and losses," he said.

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Breeder Miguel Angel Rivilla watches over a flock of sheep in his farmyard during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bercial, Spain, April 16, 2020. Picture taken April 16, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

Breeder Miguel Angel Rivilla watches over a flock of sheep in his farmyard during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bercial, Spain, April 16, 2020. Picture taken April 16, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

REUTERS

Breeder Miguel Angel Rivilla watches over a flock of sheep in his farmyard during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bercial, Spain, April 16, 2020. Picture taken April 16, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

Farming has always been an industry of tight margins, and sheep-farming in the Castilla y Leon region of northern Spain has seen tough times in the past. But Rivilla worries that the current crisis may be too much to handle.

"I don't see any fix in the short term," he said.

"It's a very uncertain future. It was already very bad and now it is horrendous. We need to look at other options, but here in the countryside there aren't many options for us."

Reuters