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Hi-tech herd: Spain school turns out 21st-century shepherds

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Short back and sides: Learning to shear sheep at the shepherds' school
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Gripping a sheep firmly between her legs, Vanesa Castillo holds its head with one hand while she tries to shear off its thick fleece with electric clippers. 

“It’s scary!” said Castillo, 37, slightly unnerved by her first attempt at sheep shearing at a school for shepherds in western Spain. 

“You have to pull the animal’s skin taut, really slowly, so you don’t cut it,” explained Jose Rivero, the professional sheep shearer giving the course. 

Sheep shearing is just one of the classes offered at the school in Casar de Caceres in rural Extremadura to counter the flight from the land that has left large swathes of inland Spain thinly populated.

Set up in 2015, the idea was “to bring in people who love the countryside”, said Enrique “Quique” Izquierdo, who runs the school. 

It aims to provide all the training and resources needed to create “a shepherd for the 21st century… with the most up-to-date methods in a sector where the traditional and the cutting-edge merge.”

Much of Spain’s sheep and goat farming is concentrated in rugged Extremadura. The school at Casar de Caceres is one of several across the country, the first set up in the northern Basque Country in 1997. 

– Tech and tradition –

“The traditional image of a shepherd wandering through the fields all day” doesn’t exist any more, said Jurgen Robledo, a vet who said the students are taught how to use many hi-tech tools including milk control programmes.

This year, 10 students are taking the five-month course which also includes hands-on experience of working with animals. 

Thibault Gohier, 26, is learning how to milk goats and to identify whether any of them are sick, which could affect the quality of their milk. 

“You need to use your fingertips as if they were your eyes,” said Felipe Escobero, who heads the farm where the school is based, as they feel a black goat’s mammary lymph nodes at the top of the udder.

When they’re healthy, “they should feel like an almond”, Escobero added. 

The course also covers financial matters and how to fill out certificates attesting to animal welfare or pesticide use. 

Completely free, it is funded by the Cooprado livestock farmers’ cooperative. 

Vet Robledo said modern hi-tech tools mean shepherds can now “measure the individual (milk) production of each animal.

“Such data can let a farmer see if production has dropped due to a subclinical mastitis infection by detecting a drop in production in a certain number of animals.” 

Unlike normal mastitis, such infections don’t cause any visible changes to the milk or udder appearance, making them difficult to detect, although they do affect the farmer’s bottom line by reducing milk production and quality.

– Different backgrounds –

Some students already work in farming and want to specialise, while others are completely new to the field, such as Vanesa Castillo, who is taking the course with her 17-year-old daughter Arancha Morales.

Originally employed at an old people’s home until it shut down two years ago, leaving her scrambling for work, her dream now is to have a sheep farm. 

“We’re looking for a way to bring home some money,” said her daughter, whose father can’t work after having an accident. 

Both women know they face an uphill battle, above all to find an affordable piece of land for their flock, a common problem across Extremadura. 

Thibault Gohier comes from a very different background.

A young Frenchman who loves animals and the countryside, his dream is to have “a bed and breakfast with a small farm attached with about 30 animals” in a mountainous area of France.

As the other students are learning to shear, El Ouardani El Boutaybi is feeding dozens of restless goats who are scampering around a pen. 

“I did the shepherds’ school and all the practical courses in June 2020… and then they took me on to work with them,” said the 20-year-old, who comes from the coastal town of Nador in northeastern Morocco. 

He got to Spain in 2017 after crossing the fence into the Spanish enclave of Melilla in North Africa, where he spent time in a centre for unaccompanied minors before being transferred to the peninsula. 

“I’ve got a future working in the countryside,” he said proudly.

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India hikes interest rates 50 basis points to fight inflation

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India’s central bank on Wednesday hiked rates for a second time, as Asia’s third-largest economy reels from galloping inflation in the wake of the Ukraine war.

The Reserve Bank of India raised its key repo rate by 50 basis points to 4.90 percent, a month after kicking off an aggressive monetary tightening cycle with a surprise 0.4 percentage point lift in May.

“The war in Europe is lingering and we are facing newer challenges each passing day,” Bank governor Shaktikanta Das said in a televised address, pointing to higher food and fuel prices.

He added that inflation was a global problem but emerging economies were facing “bigger challenges”, with market turbulence following monetary policy shifts in advanced economies.

India bounced back strongly from the coronavirus pandemic with one of the world’s fastest growth rates, but is now grappling with rising costs as commodity prices skyrocket worldwide.

Consumer inflation has consistently overshot India’s two-to-six percent target range in the first four months of the year, hitting an eight-year high of 7.79 percent in April.

“From the policy withdrawal perspective, the RBI in the last two months has moved quite aggressively and swiftly,” Upasna Bhardwaj, senior economist at Kotak Mahindra Bank, said in a note.

But despite efforts to curb price pressures, inflation was likely to remain around seven percent for the foreseeable future, she added. 

India’s economy has seen sharp price increases across the board, including food and fuel.

Last month the government banned wheat exports to rein them in after a heatwave hit local crop yields.

Officials also capped sugar exports to safeguard supplies, and slashed duties on fuel and edible oils to buffer consumer spending. 

India imports more than 80 percent of its crude oil needs, with its dependence growing as domestic production falls, and the country’s 1.4 billion people have been hit with rising petrol costs.

Prices have risen sharply since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, and economists estimate that a $10 per barrel increase in Brent crude increases consumer inflation in India by about 25 basis points.

The governor had extensively signalled Wednesday’s move in advance, calling a half-percent hike a “no brainer” in a television interview on May 23.

India’s 0.4 percent rate rise in May had caught markets by surprise, though economists supported the move as a necessary counterweight to inflation pressures.

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China approves 60 new games, sparking hopes tech crackdown is ending

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China is the biggest gaming market in the world
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China has approved the release of dozens of new video games, boosting the shares of some of its biggest tech firms Wednesday on hopes that a long-running and painful crackdown on the sector is easing.

The announcement follows a report in The Wall Street Journal on Monday that said regulators were wrapping up their investigation into ride-hailing giant Didi and will allow it to register new users.

Officials in China — the world’s biggest gaming market — rolled out a series of restrictions last year as part of a sweeping government campaign to rein in huge tech firms.

They capped the amount of gaming time for children with the stated aim of fighting addiction and froze approvals for new games for nine months, hammering the bottom lines of many companies including sector titan Tencent.

China’s National Press and Publication Administration said Tuesday it had approved 60 new games, following the year’s first batch of approvals in April.

Titles from Tencent or rival NetEase were not among the latest approvals, but they did include games from Perfect World and miHoYo — developer of the international hit “Genshin Impact”.

“We are delighted to see established studios such as Perfect World, Shengqu Games, MiHoYo, and Changyou obtained approval titles this time, which we believe could indicate higher possibilities for Tencent’s and NetEase’s titles to be approved in coming batches,” said Citi analysts in a note.

“The approval announcement will also send a positive signal of policy support to the overall China Internet sector.”

Chinese tech stocks surged in Hong Kong on the news, building on the positive sentiment among investors and analysts after the report on Didi earlier in the week.

At the break in Hong Kong, Tencent was up 4.7 percent while NetEase climbed 2.9 percent

The gaming news also boosted other major tech stocks — Hong Kong market heavyweight Alibaba was up more than eight percent and JD.com piling on more than four percent.

During the clampdown, hundreds of Chinese game makers pledged to scrub “politically harmful” content from their products and enforce curbs on underage players to comply with government demands.

China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, has been hammered in recent months by a series of major Covid lockdowns, and the government has rolled out a series of measures to resuscitate it.

— Bloomberg News contributed to this story —

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Asian markets track Wall St rally, boosted by China hopes

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Equities in Hong Kong led gains across Asia thanks to a rally in heavyweights including Alibaba and Tencent
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Asian markets rallied Wednesday, building on a hearty performance on Wall Street and helped by the reopening in China, though analysts continue to warn of near-term volatility caused by surging inflation, rising interest rates and the Ukraine war.

Equities have enjoyed some respite in recent weeks from a painful sell-off caused by central bank monetary tightening — particularly by the Federal Reserve — and a spike in prices that is beginning to hit consumers, raising concerns of an economic slowdown or recession.

A retreat in US Treasury yields provided a lift to New York traders, as did a jump in Chinese firms listed there fuelled by growing optimism that Beijing is to ease back on its long-running crackdown against the tech sector.

The improved mood around tech has come after a report this week said China was close to ending a probe into ride-hailing app Didi Global and restoring its main apps this week.

The Wall Street Journal also said investigations into two other firms — Full Truck Alliance and recruitment platform Kanzhun — were coming to a conclusion.

And on Tuesday authorities approved a second batch of 60 games in a further step to lightening their approach in the world’s largest mobile entertainment market.

Citi analysts said the “announcement will also send a positive signal of policy support to the overall China internet sector”.

Market heavyweights rallied in Hong Kong with Alibaba up more than six percent, Netease four percent higher and Tencent up more than three percent, helping the Hang Seng Index climb more than one percent.

Shanghai, Tokyo, Sydney, Seoul, Wellington, Taipei and Manila were also well in positive territory.

The moves come as Beijing relaxes its strict Covid lockdown measures, allowing the world’s number two economy to edge back into life after months.

“The bounce in risk sentiment is due to a more positive China tilt where the outlook is set to brighten up as Covid restrictions ease, and state-owned banks are obliged to increase lending again,” said SPI Asset Management’s Stephen Innes.

“It certainly feels like the tide is turning on the Mainland, though the overall tone still leans more cautiously optimistic, with key emphasis on ‘cautiously’.”

All eyes are on the release Friday of US inflation data for a better idea about the Fed’s plans as it hikes borrowing costs.

Officials are expected to lift rates half a point each in June and July with some commentators warning a strong report on Friday could allow them to unveil a three-quarter-point move in September.

Such a move would push the dollar up even further against its peers, with the unit at a 20-year high against the yen.

And observers said that the uncertainty would continue to cause volatility on markets.

“The reality for the economy and probably the stock markets is that aggressive central bank rate hikes are likely to take a sharp bite out of household consumption as costs of living pressures come from goods and services, depressed real wage gains and markedly higher mortgage servicing,” Innes added. 

“Hence, the central bank’s endgame is to cool inflation by slowing the economy and tightening financial conditions at stock market investors’ expense until price pressures abate.”

And Kate Moore at BlackRock explained to Bloomberg Television that “figuring out the direction over the next couple of months becomes increasingly difficult”.

“There seems to be across all of the investing segments a lack of strong conviction in the direction of the market. We are going to see a lot more investors remain on the sidelines, remain cautiously positioned.”

– Key figures at around 0230 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: UP 1.0 percent at 28,208.92 (break)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: UP 2.0 percent at 21,696.89

Shanghai – Composite: UP 0.7 percent at 3,264.90

Dollar/yen: UP at 133.00 yen from 132.62 yen late Tuesday

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0693 from $1.0715 

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2580 from $1.2592

Euro/pound: DOWN at 85.00 pence from 85.02 pence

Brent North Sea crude: UP 0.1 percent at $120.71 per barrel

West Texas Intermediate: UP 0.2 percent at $119.65 per barrel

New York – Dow: UP 0.8 percent to 33,180.14 (close)

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 0.1 percent at 7,598.93 (close)

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