Reviving an Ancient Tradition: Herders from Across Europe

18 Sep 2009 | English

Cheese, Slow Food’s international exhibition of quality cheese held in Bra this year from September 18 to 21, is an opportunity for tasting cheeses from around the world but also learning about the issues surrounding the dairy industry. The Milk Workshops – following the model of Earth Workshops at Terra Madre and Water Workshops at Slow Fish – are discussions exploring topical subjects. The program of workshops was inaugurated today with “Modern Herders – Seasonal Livestock Migration: A Disappearing Tradition” at 12 pm.
The problems facing the ancient practice of seasonally moving livestock from pasture to pasture (transhumance) were debated by a panel of experts and herders. Moderated by Cinzia Scaffidi, Director of the Slow Food Study Center, zootechnician Michele Fino and Paolo Viano of the University of Valle d’Aosta provided a scientific perspective, while herders Carmelina Colantuono from Molise in southern Italy, Atila Sedefchev from Bulgaria (Karakachan Sheep Presidium), Denis Fourcade from the Pyrénées-Atlantiques in France (Béarn Mountain Pasture Cheeses Presidium) and Marian Popoiu from Braşov in central Romania (Brânză de Burduf Presidium) contributed a practical point of view.
Transhumance involves herders moving livestock such as cows or sheep from pasture to pasture for different periods of the year, normally from the lowlands in the winter to the mountains in the summer, and often using native breeds selected over the millennia to be perfectly adapted to long journeys and the local environment.
However Carmelina Colantuono explained that in Molise the men take the animals south to pasture in Puglia from October to June, returning home to their women only for the summer months. And in Piedmont and the Valle d’Aosta, Michele Fino said that the malgari, the herders, bring their whole families with them up into the Alps for the summer.
Despite these differences, one of the main themes of the discussion was the similarity between transhumance in different countries and regions. The traditional movement of livestock is of great cultural, social and historical value, but the speakers also emphasized its environmental importance. Fino described it as a very sustainable practice. Without the animals grazing, in just a few years the mountain meadows would lose their rich biodiversity and be taken over by a handful of infesting species, like rhododendron. Meanwhile down in the valleys the grass can grow and harvested five or six times for hay during the summer, providing feed for the animals during the winter. “Transhumance is not just folklore,” he insisted, saying that around 500 families in the Piedmontese and Valle d’Aostan mountains still practice the tradition and that it has a significant impact on the local farming economy.
Cinzia Scaffidi also mentioned the positive effect on biodiversity of the movement of flocks, carrying seeds in their fleece and also spreading them via dung, and said that the cropping of the grass helped reduce the risk of summer wildfires.
Atila Sedefchev explained how the Semperviva Rare Breeds Center in Bulgaria is helping conserve rare breeds, like Karakachan sheep and dogs, and promote transhumance. He also spoke about the environmental importance of transhumance, saying that conserving the local wolf and bear population was a way of conserving the Karakachan sheepdogs, who could serve their purpose of protecting the flocks from predators.
The milk of the animals is generally used to make cheese, as Denis Fourcade described. The cheese made during the summer, while the sheep were grazing on the mountain pastures, was very special, he said, and in fact young people were finding that producing and selling this cheese could be a profitable way of life.
In fact the speakers were generally positive about the numbers of young people who were returning to the practice of transhumance. Despite serious difficulties such as land rights, hard-to-obtain authorizations and permits for passage, lack of distinction by the authorities between herders and farmers and unfair competition from intensive agriculture and European Union food safety regulations, the overall conclusion was that modern technology and tradition were coming together to help keep this important practice alive.

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