Authors: Jan Wieczor/Christian Raffetseder
This pasture season in the Stelvio Pass, livestock protection was practiced with livestock guarding dogs from Abruzzo. The young shepherdess Celia Martínez Aragon spent the whole summer on the mountain pastures with a mixed herd of sheep and goats. In the autumn, the herd was due to be driven down to the valley below.
Within the framework of the LIFEstockProtect project, the partner organisation planned an excursion to the Stelvio Pass, where stakeholders from Austria and South Tyrol came into contact with the shepherdess, the herd and the project. Previous wolf depredations and a constant threat due to local packs have lead to the protection measures on the pasture and have necessitated a different approach to livestock protection.
In close contact to livestock guarding dogs
In October 2022, interested parties visited the remaining animals of the originally 400 strong herd of sheep and goats to gain an insight into the work with livestock guarding dogs. The Maremmano dogs did previously not know the animals, which had been combined into one temporary herd by several different animal husbandry practitioners. The livestock, too, were not accustomed to the presence of the large Italian dogs.
Initially, the dogs and sheep had to get to know each other, and after initial shyness, the dogs were integrated into the herd.
Celia Martínez-Aragon is originally from Spain and came to South Tyrol to put her shepherding knowledge to the test.
The excursion participants were put at ease by the relaxed nature of the guardians. As the fence was crossed, the livestock guarding dogs ran over for a warm greeting of the visitors, and the sheep continued to eat, not bothered by the distraction.
New livestock protection measures necessary
Similarly to the situation on the Stelvio Pass, shepherds and farmers on many mountain pastures in the Alps are under increasing pressure. With increasing wolf density and wandering lone wolves, the seasonally grazing herds are in danger. The almost constant presence of large carnivores necessitates new pathways and management concepts for livestock protection. One potential measure used in some regions is to combine small hearts and thereby make constant shepherding financially viable. The question of if and how high alpine pastures can be maintained does not have a definitive answer. In the Alpine region, wolf-proof permanent fences are difficult to implement due to the difficult terrain.
This season in the Stelvio Pass, an opportunity to successfully implement livestock protection with active shepherding and livestock guarding dogs was found. To preserve the mountain pastures as valuable habitats, as a society we have to proactively support farmers and shepherding. In addition to the aforementioned issues, shepherds face economic difficulties as cheap imported meat threatens local meat production. Products such as wool and mountain cheeses are also in decline, as consumers are no longer prepared to pay the price which renumerates the producers’ hard work. At the same time, climate change and increasing scrub encroachment are making the services provided by herds in alpine areas all the more important. The grazing animals prevent overgrowing of scrubs on pastures, protect the soil from erosion and significantly contribute to biodiversity. It is up to consumers and the general public to uphold this extensive form of herd management.