The changing dynamics of Sardinian pastoralism: why an uncertainty lens is important

Most people’s image of Sardinia is based on the picture-postcard scenes of beaches and smart tourist resorts along the coast. But Sardinia also has an important livestock production sector, and pastoralism is central to the wider economy. Sardinia is most famous for its pecorino cheese, made from sheep’s milk. Most of us know the hard grating Pecorino Romano PDO cheese exported globally, but there are multiple other varieties too, and sheep, goat and cow’s milk production for cheese-making and meat offtake are all-important.

I have recently returned from Sardinia where we were hosted by the PASTRES team in Sardinia, led by Antonello Franca from CNR-ISPAAM, Sassari. Scoping out possible research sites and themes, we toured the island, visiting places most tourists never reach. We were all amazed at the diversity of pastoral systems, and how traditional systems based on extensive grazing and transhumance link with more intensive approaches to production, involving seeded pastures for fodder production.

Intimate connections, multiple uncertainties

These systems are intimately connected. Sheep may move from the mountains to the plains to find grazing in winter. Movements connect animals to markets, allowing for example sheep to give birth in November to allow for sales of fresh lamb to Christmas markets, combined with year-round milk production. Market networks link milk production in remote villages and pastures to cooperative or industrial producers of cheese. Small-scale mountain goat or sheep production may link to artisanal cheese production, with varied products sold directly on farm, in local street markets or even to tourists on the coast.

It is immensely complex – and uncertainties are everywhere. In just one interview with one shepherd, he mentioned the following uncertainties: milk price (always the first), subsidy availability, market access, transport costs, land rental arrangement, labour availability, climate/rainfall variability, fire events, livestock theft, wild dog attacks, disease outbreaks and producer association politics. Quite a range. Some uncertainties are environmental, some are related to markets, some emerge from institutional and political dimensions.


PASTRES research in Sardinia (along with Kenya and China) will be exploring the implications of these uncertainties and the ways pastoralists live with and from uncertainty. I was struck continuously how similar the contexts for pastoralists’ livelihoods are in Sardinia compared to the settings I know better in Africa.

Subsidies and incentives

There are of course specificities and differences, which is what will make our comparisons across cases so interesting. In the European case, the importance of subsidy programmes from the European Union is ever-present in people’s discussions and economic calculations. As the Common Agricultural Policy is reformed, more uncertainties are produced. And navigating one’s way through the array of ever-changing incentives packages is a challenging process. Improvisation and innovation are essential.


For example, how do you get a subsidy for establishing an on-farm cheese production when your land is communal? Well, find a way that allows the local commune to allocate a hectare plot, with appropriate legal sanctions, and head to Brussels armed with the paperwork, as one farmer explained. Too often support packages create distortions, with assumptions about what ‘proper’ production and use is, and complex systems of pastoral production are rarely on the agenda.

Subsidies for investment are very often premised on private land ownership, when communal land is essential for the production system. Incentives, for example, are provided for organic production, when there is low demand, and marketing chains are not geared to supplying such products. And, despite the importance of extensive pastoral systems in promoting ecosystem services  – for example through biodiversity conservation or fire prevention – surprisingly this is not recognized by a proper subsidy policy in Sardinia. And so on. Limited voice and influence in the wider European setting mean Sardinian pastoralists’ perspectives are not incorporated, and even regional political representation is poor, given the focus of island politics on the cities, towns and tourist and energy industries, with a general scarce attention to the inland areas.

Deep histories and pastoral identities


All settings have deep histories that affect how pastoral production today is practised, and how cultures, identities and relations with state institutions condition this. Sardinia is no exception. The inland mountain areas of Sardinia have strong cultural traditions. Sometimes these are reified as museum-piece exhibitions of archaic ‘tradition’ to be shared in folkloric displays for tourists. But culture is not static or something of the past, it is very live in the present. Everyone we talked to emphasised how they identified as a pastoralist, even if they no longer persisted with practices of their forebears, and lived far from their original home areas.

Everyone, it seems, has a connection, a history and a set of memories that link the old with the new, tradition with modernity. While transhumance now occurs by transporting animals in lorries, it is still central to the production system, and connects places with many pastoral families having two homes – one in the home mountain village and one in the plains – with family members moving between them. Migrations to mainland Italy have also taken place, with whole groups taking their animals on boats to Tuscany and elsewhere from the 1950s, but even today, the connections are maintained and identities are sustained.

An independent, isolated, often harsh lifestyle of pastoral production in the mountains is made possible through these networks, and especially through a wider solidarity across kin groups. Families are important in pastoral production in Sardinia, as elsewhere. Large, connected families are able to manage mobility and the workforce to offset risk. Different family members provide support for different aspects of production – some looking after animals, some involved in cheese production, some specialising in marketing or engaging in milk cooperatives – while others sought jobs elsewhere. Men, women, young, old take on different roles. If a family can be held together, across nuclear units and generations, then survival in harsh conditions is more possible. Local moral economies and social relations become vital for embracing uncertainties of different sorts.

Changing fortunes

 mountain goats.jpg

Fortunes change over time. The depressing narrative of austerity and decline was often relayed to us, contrasted with better times in the past. During the golden years from the 1980s, when milk prices were high and subsidies flowed freely, many invested in education to get a generation out of the area and into professional jobs. Today, under the austerity conditions of contemporary times, when many have lost jobs as industries and mines closed, the fall-back to pastoral production is vital for those who have maintained flocks and herds. Others, without such resources, are forced to migrate to the mainland or further, or sit at home hoping for better times. Meanwhile those who left earlier, often keep their links with pastoral areas through sending support and providing investment.

There are positive signs for the future too. In part supported by state grants, some young people are starting up pastoral enterprises, but using new ways of managing animals and fodder. We met several impressive young male pastoralists, and there were others we heard about who had failed to find jobs in the depressed economy who were farming pigs in the forested areas of the mountains, producing pork products for the market.

Pig production was an unexpected topic of conversation in the mountain areas of Barbagia and Ogliastra we visited, where it may be important for young men as a livelihood, when other options have disappeared. But discussions of pig production often ended up in heated exchanges on the recent clamp down on free-range pigs by the state due to the risk of swine fever and its effects on exports. The effects on poor young people’s livelihoods is very real, and strongly felt. With task forces of forestry officers arriving unannounced and exterminating pigs en masse, requiring vaccination and restricting production to pen-fed systems, the resentment of state practice is very clear; even if in technical disease control terms such measures make some sense.

State control, local resentments

In many ways, these discussions on swine fever encapsulated some of the tensions between state control of people and production and the improvisation and adaptation required for responding to uncertainty that have persisted for years. Swine fever control is only the latest in a long line of state impositions that have affected pastoralists’ flexible production systems.

Probably the most devastating long-term consequence of state intervention on pastoral production was the expansion of forestry areas in the mountains from the 1970s, applied thanks to an overly conservative environmental policy of forest management (especially in the framework of Natura 2000 sites). While this created guaranteed jobs, it contracted grazing areas and enclosed common land. Indeed the expansion of pig production is linked, as pigs can forage in these areas, while availability of grazing suitable for other animals has decreased.


The state interventions affecting environments and animal resources in turn come on the back of heavy state policing and military presence in the earlier era, until the 1980s, of banditry, kidnapping and stock theft. While this period of insecurity is looked back on as a troubled time, the resentments against control by the Italian state are highlighted by many murals in the town of Orgosolo, and sometimes persist in popular discourse today, with disdain for the Carabinieri (the military police) being a common refrain in jokes and gossip.

Living with uncertainties

To understand pastoral systems and how uncertainties are responded to, we have to link changing environments and resources to animal production and grazing, to the construction of complex markets networks, to patterns of migration and mobility, to questions of identity and belonging, to the longer histories of interactions with authority and state power. While our future research in Sardinia will only be able to touch on a fraction of this complex picture, it will certainly be fascinating!

Image credits: Dr Antonello Franca and Prof Ian Scoones

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