Austrian and Italian shepherds sharing experiences

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Three local shepherds from Tyrol travelled last week with the European Wilderness Society and EURAC to Central Italy. Their aim was to learn from shepherds how they implement livestock protection. After all, the Apennines in Central Italy represent one of the regions in Europe where wolves never disappeared. This multi-day meeting was extremely useful for the shepherds to see effective protection measures with their own eyes.

Locals and wildlife in Majella National Park

Located just 30 km from the Adriatic coast and a 2,5 hour drive from Rome, you find Majella National Park. The park harbours one of the first certified Wilderness areas and is home to wide array of wildlife. Most characteristic are the approximately 100 wolves in 10 wolf packs, along with 11 permanently resident bears. Who thinks that this park must be enormous in size because of the number of large carnivores is wrong. Majella covers a surface of ‘just’ 75 square kilometres, or 75.000 hectares.

Besides the wolves and bears, the park has a high density of red deer and wild boar, which form the main source of food for the predators. Amongst all the wildlife, there are villages and towns scattered throughout the park. Many of the locals living inside Majella National Park are either working in the tourism or agricultural sector. Especially livestock farming, along with shepherding is a historical practice that has been around for centuries.

Because wolves and bears never completely disappeared from the region which currently lies within Majella National Park, local livestock owners have always been used to their presence. Historically, their way of coexisting with predators has developed to an effective and sustainable way of living. This is contrary to many other regions of Europe, where predators have disappeared sometimes for more than 100 years. As part of the LIFEstockProtect project, it is important to learn from the knowledge these locals posses. We can tailor best practice examples to the needs in the German-speaking Alps and implement them to ensure effective livestock protection across the region.

Meeting the local livestock owners and their dogs

On the first day, the Austrian shepherds had a meeting with a local who owns together with his brother and father approximately 1.400 sheep and goats. They are keeping their animals on some of the highest grasslands in Majella National Park. This area lies directly within a wolf territory and is surrounded by several others. The way that this family-run business protects their livestock is by using livestock guarding dogs together with shepherds. At the moment, the family has 24 livestock guarding dogs, mainly the Abruzzese Sheepdog breed. During our visit, the local owner showed how one of their shepherds moves across the alpine pastures. The Abruzzese dogs, which many believe are dangerous to humans, showed how well they behave in the presence of people they do not know. This was really an eye-opener for the Austrian shepherds!

Tasting local cow cheese

The following day we visited a local cow farmer, who is also producing different types of cheese. Not only does he live right in a wolf territory, he finds sounders of wild boar up crossing his lands too. This cow farmer explained how the cows are instinctively dealing with the presence of wolves in the region. When the cows spend enough time outside in the open, they instinctively protect young calves by standing around them, facing outwards. This way, the farmer says, the cows have a natural and effective protection against depredation.

Yet, when the cows spend the cold summer months inside the stable, they forget this behaviour again, says the farmer. Once they return to the pastures, it takes a while before the cows’ instincts become active again. Nevertheless, accompanied by a handful of dogs, the farmer has not dealt with cow depredation in the past years. We ended this visit with a cheese-tasting and long discussions about the colour and fat-content of goat cheese. This differs significantly between Italy and Austria, so it seemed.

Locals working with foreign shepherds

The next day, the group went in the early morning to meet two sisters and a Macedonian shepherd who have approximately 300 sheep and goats. The sisters took over from their parents and are running the business in between two wolf pack territories. Also these sheep are protected by Abruzzese dogs, and they are kept in a metal night enclosure. Many years ago, one of the bears managed to climb into the night enclosure, therefore the sisters improved the enclosure after the incident.

Since then, the enclosure effectively protected the livestock from any predator at night, together with the livestock guarding dogs. The shepherd from Macedonia is not an exception, there are in fact many foreign shepherds in Majella National Park. For example, many shepherds from Slovakia, Hungary and Bosnia Herzegovina spend their summer in Italy to look after livestock in the Apennines. Financial support for livestock owners to pay for such shepherds does not exist yet in Italy, contrary to France.

Successful young livestock owners

On the last day of the visits to the locals in Majella National Park, the shepherds visited a young couple. They started their own goat farm three years ago. After he finished his studies in agriculture, he wanted to work more with his hands in the field. She worked in Rome in a different sector, but decided to join him and run the goat farm together on 60 hectares of land that they rent. After three years, they are still waiting for the financial support to cover part of the investments they made to build a stable and fence for the goats to stay at night.

Nevertheless, the young couple is very happy with their goat farm, along with their five livestock guarding dogs. Experimenting with different herbs and ingredients, they have created some delicious goat cheeses. These cheeses are actually in high demand in the local region. The business is now running so well that all cheese was already sold during the summer months, despite the dip in tourists during the corona pandemic.

An inspiring visit with more to come

This trip has been only the first of many meetings and trips that will take place during the implementation of the LIFEstockProtect project. Learning from livestock owners that have always implemented livestock protection will be important to implement the best practices also in the German-speaking Alps of Austria, Germany and Italy. Stay tuned for more updates soon!

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