Transhumance along the river Adige: LIFEstockProtect Competence Center on excursion

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Recently,the shepherd course from the vocational school for agriculture and home economics in Salern, which is also a competence centre for LIFEstockProtect, visited the shepherd couple Sandra and Daniel and their – at least for South Tyrol – very special project. The topic and content of the training day was targeted pasture management and dam maintenance on the banks of the Adige. The medium to long-term goal is to promote and develop the professional figure of shepherds by enhancing their role not only in the economic and social sphere, but also in the ecological sphere.

Daniel and Sandra have been running a kind of transhumance project along the Adige dams between Salurn and Lana since the beginning of the year, in coordination with the Office for Torrent Control. In this way, they have all-year-round grazing, which is more arduous due to the constant presence of the shepherd with his flock, but it makes it possible to utilise the natural vegetation even in winter and to have the herding and livestock guarding dogs working all year round and not just on the summer pastures. In fact, the dogs play a key role in guiding the herd and protecting it from large predators. The first task is entrusted to a Border Collie and four Lessinia and Lagorai sheepdogs. Energetic and brilliant breeds that constantly circle the herd to ensure that every animal stays close. The protection of the livestock, however, is entrusted to four Pastori della Sila and a Maremmano Abbruzzese, who only go on alert when they sense danger and remain calm the rest of the time. Cooperation between herding and livestock guarding dogs and their owners is fundamental for herd management: the presence of the dog and the shepherdess, as well as other prevention methods, are in fact the best way to coexist with large predators (EU Commission, 2022).

Advantages of guided grazing

However, pasture farming is often seen as a profession that has more to do with tradition than with a real job. The Salern Vocational College would like to address and change this image through the shepherding course by teaching specific skills that are fundamental to sustainable pasture management. Guided grazing has many advantages, not only at the Adige dam. Its principles are applicable to all grazing areas: With careful planning, both grazing animals and the environment can benefit. Among other things, it has been shown how changing the exact combinations of available plant species can stimulate the animals’ appetite and encourage them to eat not only what they like, but also what is simply there, even if it is not particularly appetising (Meuret et al., 2015). At the same time, this type of grazing has advantages for biodiversity, especially with regard to the conservation of open habitats, particularly if they are part of a mosaic of heterogeneous habitats (Fraser et al., 2022).

Typical alpine pasture landscapes, for example, are often characterised by a high occurrence of mat-grass (Nardion strictae), which, if not properly managed, become monotonous species communities. This is due to the fact that the characteristic plant of this plant community, the mat-grass (Nardus stricta), is flavourful in the early vegetation stages, while it tends to be avoided in the later stages when it has hardened off. The conservation of a species-rich mat-grass pasture has been classified as a habitat of community interest under the Habitats Directive (code 6230).

The invasion of shrubs and trees and the associated closure of open landscapes is a significant threat to biodiversity, which is becoming increasingly widespread due to the abandonment of land. According to Burns et al., (2021bird populations in the EU have declined by 20 % since the 1980s, particularly among species associated with extensively farmed agricultural land and meadows. An immense range of species depend on the conservation of these habitats, from the large number of bird species of open and semi-open landscapes such as the red-backed shrike (Lanus collurio) or the hoopoe (Upupa epops)to insects like the Apollo butterfly (Parnassius apollo) as well as reptiles like the sand lizard (Lacerta agilis). Shepherds have been contributing to the conservation of these habitats for thousands of years through their traditional activities (Putzer et al., 2016), which are now part of the South Tyrolean (and not only South Tyrolean) cultural landscape and play a fundamental and irreplaceable role in the conservation of habitats and species of community importance.

By meeting Sandra and Daniel, the participants of the excursion were finally encouraged to reflect on the role of the shepherd as a provider of ecosystem services, services that nature provides for the benefit of mankind. The herd, which also includes sheep and goats, works on the embankment in addition to the usual work carried out by the Office for Torrent Control, which has therefore decided to support the initiative. The presence of goats in the herd not only balances out the height of the grass without having to rely on mechanical means, but also helps to contain invasive neophytes such as the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia),an invasive neophyte species that is one of the 40 most invasive woody angiosperms in the world(Richardson et al., 2011);goats also damage the bark by feeding on it and weaken its spread: continuous grazing over the years can therefore lead to a decline in these species(Stumpf 2002; Zehm 2004 2004 and 2008) 2008). The herd also compacts the embankment soil by treading on it with their hooves, making it less susceptible to erosion. Maintaining a low level of grazing, on the other hand, favours the creation of riverside habitats, as shrubs and dense reed thickets (if present) are loosened up. This in turn can promote the colonisation of species typical of these habitats.

Nature-based solutions are promoted

Such nature-based solutions are already recognised and rewarded for sustainable environmental management in some European countries. In Bavaria, for example, measures by farmers and breeders to maintain, improve and create ecologically valuable habitats are subsidised, while in Saxony, grazing of river banks with herds is preferred by law to other measures, such as maintenance with technical equipment. In Austria, a premium is granted for the sustainable management of mountain pastures; in South Tyrol there are also subsidies for landscape conservation. However, there is still some potential here, e.g. with regard to a deepening of contractual nature conservation. This could also significantly enhance the role of shepherds on an economic level, as it would emphasise their contributions to nature and landscape conservation.

However, for these measures to have a significant impact on biodiversity, it is essential that herders are properly trained in herding and targeted pasture management, both through theoretical courses and practical experiences shared with other herders – to pass on tradition and renew it.

Photo Credit: Valeria

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