Everyday lives of shepherdesses and shepherds

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Alpine pastures are valued for many things They are production stations for agricultural produce, contribute significantly to tourism, and also have ecological value, which should be preserved and promoted in this time of enormous biodiversity loss. Thereby the work of shepherdesses and shepherds plays an important role, as they practice targeted graying and therefore contribute to preserving and taking care of the landscape.

At the Shepherds’ Day at the Salern Agricultural School, the jobs of shepherdesses and shepherds took centre stage. To get a glimpse into the everyday life of this profession, two shepherdesses and one shepherd from South Tyrol talked about their work, their experiences and also shared their hopes for the future.

First hand experience

The talks started with a student from the Salern Agricultural School, who herded 240 sheep for the first time last summer on the Plose mountain near Brixen. At the beginning of the pasture season the animals were accustomed to their surroundings and the night pen, which is an important part of livestock protection. Throughout the summer, her herd grazed from the deep valleys up to an altitude of around 2,500 metres. Around autumn she slowly wandered back into the valley. To some extent she carried out her work in very difficult conditions – fog especially made her work challenging in the mountains. She just counted herself lucky that there was no snowfall this summer.

Sometimes I felt like I had to herd the tourists.

Student of the Salern Agricultural School

This statement summarises a further challenge well. There have been cases of pasture fences being torn down and of sheep being chased by children or dogs. She was nonetheless pleased with the challenging work, but does wish that the general public valued the profession more.

“Working with nature” is how the second presenter summarised his longstanding work as a shepherd. He argued that grazing in alpine pastures has improved the quality and quantity of feed over the years. Fencing also allows the best possible targeted and even grazing of a meadow. The landscape is left open through grazing, whereby the biodiversity of alpine fauna and flora is boosted. Before going up to the pasture in spring however, he explained that some preparations were necessary. Getting the herd accustomed to the night pen and the dogs must occur before the summer down in the valley. The night pen protects the animals, not only from large carnivores, but also from foxes and stray dogs. The sheep are kept close together in the night pen and according to him, this parallels their natural behaviour and therefore leads to less stress for the animals than is often thought. The shepherd also observed a higher fertility of females in the autumn and attributes this to the daily gathering of all animals in the night pen. The females become pregnant in the summer on mountain pastures and are able to safely give birth to the lambs in autumn inside the barn. No lamb should be born on mountain pastures – their chances of survival are low due to the harsh weather conditions in the mountains. As good as the job is, certain challenges have to be overcome. For example, the workload of erecting the fences is very high. The night pen has to be repositioned every 7-10 days and this alone takes around 5 hours. The lack of staff heightens this problem even more. It is also difficult to find good herding and guarding dogs, which are vital partners to shepherds!

The presentations ended with a wandering shepherdess, who in the autumn and winter months migrated from Friaul in the North to the Adriatic Sea in the South with around 2,000 sheep, 7-9 driving dogs, 2 livestock guarding dogs and 2 colleagues. In a year this journey covers over 1,000 km. In the summer her sheep graze on mountain pastures. The wandering shepherdess lives for this transhumance, which was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage in 2019 and has been practiced for hundreds and thousands of years. Worldwide there are several forms of transhumance, but all encompass a climate-driven migration to new grazing pastures each year. In the Alps this takes the form of migration to mountain pastures in summer and return to the valley in autumn.

The day of a wandering shepherdess is long and hard. Everything begins with the counting and caring of newborn lambs. With such a large herd 60 lambs can be born in a single night! The animals first graze in an open space and come into a pen around noon. In the afternoon this process is repeated before they spend the night in a night pen. In winter the animals mainly feed from the remains of harvested maize and soy fields, in vineyards and on fertilised meadows. A reoccuring narrative here is the lack of staff. This is a problem that can be traced from the low wages and value of the shepherding profession. The simple life and difficult working conditions far away from home are clearly not for everyone. Still, this extensive form of grazing with low stocking rate per area brings its advantages for landscape preservation. Simply put, the landscape suffers less from this gentle use. The repetitive yearly cycle, the herd and their dogs satisfy the wandering shepherdess and attract many spectators in the villages. And a tip from the expert: Starting with adult livestock guarding dogs makes things easier.

Photo: Kusstatscher Kurt

What does the future hold? It’s clear that the preservation and care of alpine pastures and cultural landscapes must be further supported. Especially with the added challenge of livestock protection. For this good herders are needed, along with financial incentives. This is what the Salern Agricultural School is working on, and its shepherding courses will start the coming year! For all those interested: Sign up here!

Author: Jasmin Clare

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