Changing pastoral landscapes in Europe

Changes in climate patterns, the growing impact of trade and agriculture policies, the increasing presence of predators in many mountainous areas (wolves, bears and lynx) and dwindling market opportunities due to change in European consumption patterns, are all affecting pastoralism today in Europe. These themes – and others – will be central to our explorations of pastoralism, uncertainty and resilience in the PASTRES case study in Sardinia, Italy.

Pastoralism: opportunity and crisis

Pastoralism is a practice that is increasingly appreciated for its provision of quality products and the associated socio-environmental services it brings. However, pastoralism is paradoxically less and less practiced by European citizens. These dynamics have been the subject of investigation in the Marie Curie-funded TRAMed project (TRAnshumances in the Mediterranean).

Growing unemployment in the EU and increasingly abandoned agricultural lands provide optimal opportunities for grazing and extensive livestock farming. EU policies support employment for rural youth and are interested in market niches that support local pastoral economies.

Nonetheless, pastoralism in the EU is suffering as part of a wider process that is seeing rural populations constantly declining. According to FAO, over the last two decades, the number of flocks in the Mediterranean EU has declined by about 30 percent. Pastomed reported that in 2007 about only one in every ten extensive livestock breeders was aged below 35. Many reports confirm similar difficulties related to a dwindling workforce and problems of generational renewal.

A restructuring of the pastoral sector

While the number of farms and farmers have decreased, the size of the remaining flocks and herds has grown dramatically in order to ensure economic viability. In pastoral areas of Europe, there is therefore more differentiation, and, with this, more intensification.

Changes in the number and size of flocks in the sheep meat sector in France in the last decades (1988-2010), all farms includedGraph.png

(Sheep flock size: a) red (upper) 1-49; 2) green 50-149; 3) blue 150-299; 4) light blue (lower) ≥ 300)

Despite the extensive character of most pastoral production systems, managing a pastoral flock/herd is an intensive undertaking, encompassing both physical labour as well as technical and managerial skills – ranging from climatology to botany, animal physiology and health, ethology of predators, etc.

The recent restructuring of the sector has profoundly changed the size of the enterprises and the nature of the work, marking a sharp separation between the managerial tasks and the field level. While livestock owners spend most time in sourcing public/institutional support, seeking reliable market opportunities and ensuring the quality of production, shepherds, hired as labourers, spend much of the year in harsh settings, with limited access to public services, scarce connectivity and few opportunities for leisure and alternative activities.

With larger herd and flock sizes, the further intensification of shepherding work has made this activity less attractive to the local youth, who often decide not to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and avoid engaging in a profession with uncertain prospects.

In spite of significant increases in their tasks and responsibilities, associated to changes in the socio-political (i.e. market options and agricultural policies) as well as agro-ecological settings (i.e. climate change and growing presence of predators), the working and living conditions of breeders and shepherds alike have not improved.

Growing uncertainty

European pasture lands in the Alps, Epirus, Apennines and Pyrenees are among the areas most exposed to the risk of abandonment; all suffering the consequences of lack of generational renewal, stratification of herd/flock ownership and changing labour practices.

Uncertainties are everywhere in European pastoralism, whether in the policy arena, in variable market options, in shifting climatic patterns or in the remote pastures. How to respond to these is a major practical and policy challenge, which PASTRES will be investigating over the coming years. To keep in touch with future events, news and reflections, make sure you sign up to this bi-weekly blog and our mailing list to receive regular updates. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook !


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