Updates about livestock protection in Stelvio National Park

The Stelvio National Park, with its green meadows and white peaks up to 3905m high, borders the Swiss Engadin National Park in the Grisons canton to the north. To the south, the Valcamonica of the Lombardian Adamello Regional Park and the Val di Sole of the Adamello Brenta Natural Park in Trentino. It encompasses large swathes of the Ortler Alps and is very popular as a tourist destination for hikers, mountain bikers and other visitors.

But the national park is not only home to tourists. Various alpine mountain pastures are still being traditionally farmed. Cow and goat milk is processed. The whey is fed to the pegs kept on the meadows. There are numerous cattle and sheep. Usually, the grazing animals are led up the mountain for transhumance, but this year the pasture supervisor, together with 45 different practitioners, to implement guided grazing with shepherdesses and shepherds, supported by working dogs.

This will allow calculated grazing of surfaces for the preservation of tourist attractions, the pastures and pastoral agriculture as well as a heightened protection of the grazing livestock from disease, hazards in the terrain and possible depredations by large carnivores.

Due to the high density of wolves in nearby Switzerland and Italy, the number of wolf sightings and depredations have risen. This was a further impetus for guided grazing and can be led back to the successful deployment concept with dogs in the Italian tourism and conservation area of Majella.

Seit Mai werden nun rund 400 Schafe und Ziegen, die vor allem die Verbuschung in Schach halten, von einer Hirtin mit vier Hütehunden und sechs Herdenschutzhunden im Nationalpark Stilfser Joch geführt. The herding dogs help the shepherdess keep the mixed herd together on the daily hikes and steer them in the right direction for grazing.

Since May, around 400 sheep and goats, which keep scrub encroachment under control, have been guided through Stelvio National Park by a shepherdess with four herding and six livestock guarding dogs. They are barely noticeable to tourists among the flock. The dogs observe their surroundings carefully and independently. Through natural instinct they are able to recognise threats quickly. Their socialisation and personality helps them quickly determine that neither the many curious mountain bikers nor hikers with children and pet dogs are generally a threat to the safety of their flock. They regard humans with curiousity and approach them in a friendly and respectful manner, if they are approached with the same friendliness ann respect.

This behaviour is astonishing to many who mistakenly believe that the dogs approach any passersby with aggression. In fact, these dogs mainly protect their trusted herd from wolf, bear, wild dog, fox or crow depredations through their presence. Their size, their confident appearance, their continuous marking of their territory and their independent, strategic distribution in and around the herd contribute substantially to their deterring effect on hungry carnivores.

This effect is confirmed by the the shepherdess, who gathers the herd into a tight night pen as soon as the steep terrain between the upper Stelvio pasture and the Sulden ski area allows. They are also protected during the night by the six Maremmano Abruzzese dogs. This group of dogs is made up of three experienced and fully trained individuals as well as three younger ones. The shepherdess herself sleeps in differently equipped huts at her disposal. Water isn’t always available nearby, which is connected to climate change and the associated drought in the mountains. The warm summer has likely lead to the presence of many snakes, whose bites the sheep often fall victim to. Hence, pastoral livestock keeping is full of challenges.

Luckily, the uncertainty of finding enough people to undertake transhumance for the next summer season has at least been laid to rest: after longstanding depredations, there is renewed interest in shepherding after this, so far successful, summer. If you ask the shepherdess about the dogs, you get the following answer, “My dogs help me the most with the least amount of cost. In the evenings I feed them and in between they come to me for a stroke.”

With the upcoming excursions, participants have the chance to learn more about alpine pastoral agriculture and the life of sheperdesses and shepherds, as well as the interactions between tourism and agriculture. They are also able to experience the use of dogs for guiding and protecting the herd first hand – but only once they have registered and confirmed their participation.

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