Shepherding with livestock guarding dogs in Stelvio National Park

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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 covers a large swathe of the Ortler Alps and is one of the most popular recreational areas in the Alps for hikers, cyclists and other visitors.

But the national park is not only home to tourists. Various alpine mountain pastures are still being traditionally farmed. Cows and goats are milked daily. The whey is fed to grazing pigs. There are numerous cattle and sheep. It was previously typical to leave grazing animals unattended for most of the time, but this year, the manager of the pastures, together with 45 different transhumant shepherds, decided to try out guided grazing with dogs.

This allows for targeted grazing of areas, which preserves the touristic appeal of the local landscape, pastures and agriculture, as well as protects livestock from disease, dangerous terrain and possible depredation by carnivores.

Due to the high density of wolves in nearby Switzerland and Italy, the number of wolf sightings and depredations have risen. This was another reason to take the step towards guided grazing, and referred to the successful use of working dogs in Maiella National Park, Italy.

Since May, around 400 sheep and goats have been kept by a shepherdess with four herding and six livestock guarding dogs in Stelvio National Park to keep scrub encroachment under control. The herding dogs help the shepherdess with the daily hike with the flock of sheep, keep the mixed herd together and guide them to the desired grazing spots.

The livestock guarding dogs, although sheep dogs might be a more fitting name, are in this case Cane de Pastore Maremmano Abruzzese dogs, large animals with midlength white fur. They are barely noticeable to tourists among the flock. They observe their surroundings attentively and independently. Their natural instinct quickly detects whether any danger is near. 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 surprising to many who incorrectly assume that dogs will react aggressively to anything that approaches them. In fact, these dogs mainly protect their trusted herd from wolf, bear, wild dog, fox or crow depredations through their presence. Their size, confident demeanour, continuous marking of their territory and strategically independent distribution in and around the herd contribute to their deterring effect on carnivores, all the while presenting a friendly face to tourists.

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 is made up of three experienced and three juvenile dogs. The shepherdess herself sleeps in differently equipped huts at her disposal. Some of these huts date back to a time when shepherding was the rule, not the exception, while others are newly renovated. Due to climate change causing droughts in the mountains, water isn’t always close by. 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 whether or not she will find enough local animals for the transhumance next year has vanished, as the interest in shepherding has grown again after this sucessful 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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