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How we brand animals with the "Merca" ceremony

Written by Federico Stango.

Some hidden corners of Maremma, where cattles still live in the wild, reveal fragments of a world that was still current until post-conflict transformations converted the desert and malarial lowlands to new or bigger urban centers.

A moment from the traditional branding cerimony.Photo: Andrea De Maria. The traditional ceremony we are talking about takes place in May, in the warmth of spring. Nowadays people might consider the marking of the young cattles a rude event, but the "merca" (as we call it) is a truly special occasion, a celebration for the farmers and the pride of cattle owners that both show his cowboys skills and officially announce the add of new animals in his herd. Tuscan cowboys, known as "Butteri" (to name them properly by our traditions), are the ones that suffer the most during the event, paying in bruises and dented bones so that the classic Tuscan irony resonates with the motto, "who goes to the merca and is not marked, has not really been to the merca."

Is not so easy to obtain informations on the "merca" as there is not much in books apart from some notes by the Tuscan historian Nicolosi. The best we can do to get documented is to start asking old farmers to find out what grandparents have told to grandchildren through time.

Once hosted on plaforms, the many guests now watch the show from all around the fences: sweat and dust, rejoice and fear to see the "butteri" face this battle with mighty, agile, strong and already well developed bulls.

In the ring, calves are all but submissive and the first part of the buttero's job is to separate each one from its group while horseback riding. Once "sbrancato" (translated means "separated"), the animals are sent to a nearby rod where, using different techniques, they get branded:

The "lacciaia"

This method requires a 10/12 meters rope (the so called "lacciaia"), with an iron ring at one end through which the other end passes so to form a loop to run on animal's horns.

The man in charge of the lacciaia stands behind the so called "giudice" ("the judge"): a forked pole by the rod center, while a companion pushes the calf to move clockwise so that the lacciaia gets around the animal's neck from the front. The one holding the lacciaia tries to catch the animal attaching the rope to the fence to constrict his movements. Once done, the calf can be landed using either the cowherd or by struggle.

With the cowherd technique, one of the cowboys will try to grab the animal by the tail while others will try to pass the cowherd around his legs. Once all the strings are in place, they have to be pulled simultaneously so that the calf is forced to lie down on his left side ready to be branded.

With the {0}struggle{/0} technique, a herdsman will try to prevent the calf movement by holding him by the tail, while his companion will grab him by muzzle and horns trying to turn calf's head enough to unbalance him: once the calf hits the floor on his side, heardmen will tie his legs and brand him.

The catch by fight

It consists into placing two cowboys along the fences while a third one prompts the animal to run around the central pole clockwise so to calm him down and have him in the right direction for the first two cowboys to grab him by head and feet. Once almost stopped, the calf is brought down and the third man will bind his legs.

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