From a niche activity to a multitude of flocks
By Elena Dacome
“I’ve always been passionate about sheep!” are the first words uttered by Fabio, a shepherd seated on a bed of nettles with a cigarette hanging from his lips, as he observes his flock dotted across the meadows outside the village of Agordo in the province of Belluno in the eastern Dolomites. His three Maremmano sheepdogs lay sprawled on the grass seemingly focussed on enjoying their afternoon nap. They appear to be dozing off on the job but at the merest hint of the unexpected, eyelids flick open and the dogs are ready to attack. When unrestrained by fences, the sheep are free to roam and strangers can approach, albeit cautiously. High up in the mountains, the Maremmano sheepdogs are the only defence against wolves. But in the Dolomites during the summer when eagles try to pick off the lambs, even the dogs cannot protect them.
The Alps have always been a destination for herders on the transhumance. Due to the prevailing rocky nature, Alpine anthropology, endowed with particular historical sensitivity, has long since deconstructed the image of a geographical context perceived as isolated over the centuries and untouched by flows of people and contamination. The Alpine meadows, during the summer season, have served as pastures for herds and flocks for centuries and groups of humans have moved among the valleys far more frequently than one might imagine. Only around the 1960s did anthropologists begin to dedicate their ethnographic research to the Alpine valleys.
In the Veneto region in the 1970s mountain agriculture began to decline, leading to the abandonment of high altitude pastoralism and the progressive depopulation of the Alpine valleys. In the past, seasonal intra-Alpine economic migration by the male population was the norm for part of the year, and eventually, men returned to their home villages. However, since the 1980s migration became increasingly one-way, leading to the inevitable depopulation of the valleys. Conversely, increasing flows of tourists resulted in a burgeoning real estate market.
Since the end of the ’90s, the European Union and local authorities have made consistent efforts in trying to contrast the declining interest in Alpine herding activities and the consequent abandonment of mountain pastures by introducing policies involving economic aid for herders of goats or sheep, as well as funds for young farmers in search of land on which to graze their animals or looking to purchase a flock.
The subsidies are, in fact, for both, those who purchase and raise animals as well as for those who take part in auctions to rent pastures. In a relatively short time span, this has led to a shift from a scenario of empty landscapes, to an abundance of flocks concentrated on the mountains in the summer and the lowlands in the winter. Therefore, in recent decades the number of shepherds engaged in “nomadic pastoralism” has grown considerably, to the extent that herders now need to be careful to ensure their flocks do not cross paths with others.
The effect of these policies is controversial. On the one hand, they have promoted the revival of an almost abandoned profession, but on the other hand, the induced crowding of flocks and shepherds has come at the expense of good quality management of resources, which are scarce compared to the new pressures. While in the lowlands competition is for privately owned land, at high altitudes public and communal pastures are allocated on the basis of perverse auction mechanisms, for which the users’ right of first refusal is often worth little in the face of ever higher sums to be paid.
The issue is not on the availability of mountain pastures, but rather their accessibility. Rental costs are high and increasing, also due to speculative phenomena. As seen in other parts of Europe, pasturelands are assigned to wealthy people who do not even own flocks, who rent the land to access the lucrative European subsidy schemes. Donkeys are at times abandoned on these lands, just to comply with the CAP grazing requirements. This is just one example of the ways distorted policy-related mechanisms are affecting genuine pastoralists and small scale farmers.
The lowlands are where competition has become increasingly fierce in recent years and available grazing spaces are the new battlefields. Good relationships that individual shepherds manage to maintain with owners of the fields are the main strategy to guarantee access to the land, together with the ability to stray onto uncultivated land unnoticed. The fact that relationships are so important proves the limitedness of the policy framework and questions its effectiveness. A portion of the new pastoralists in the area are admittedly attracted more by subsidies than being motivated by the pastoralist dream.
This form of farming means that flocks are never stuck in stables: they are constantly on the move. During the summer months, the sheep wander the mountain pastures high up in the Dolomites, and from September they slowly begin to descend down to the lowlands for the beginning of the winter. Generally, they remain there until the month of May, moving every day around the provinces of Treviso, Padua and sometimes even Venice and the coast. The aim of these daily transfers is to enable the flock to eat the residues of the fields left fallow without the need to supplement their diet with any extra fodder, only salt. Due to the high number of animals, trespassing on farming plots or main roads are common. Local people and culture also change, inhibiting herders and animals from passing through their transhumance routes. Large homemade signs that read NO GRAZING, NO SHEEP are increasingly a common sight now.
An ethnographic researcher has followed the shepherds of the Veneto region with the view to produce a sort of contemporary snapshot of pastoral life in the region. Ten years ago a young couple of shepherds chose to embark on this activity. Fabio, originally from the Val di Fiemme, after two years as an apprentice, purchased his own flock, which today numbers approximately 900 animals. Alice, from Padua, married the man and his lifestyle choice. The story of these two young shepherds overlaps with Alice recently becoming a mum and how the resulting changes were incorporated into the couple’s daily movements, not to mention the stories of the salaried workers from West Africa who help with the day-to-day maintenance of the flock.
The study develops in three intersecting directions which are common to other PASTRES areas:
- Observing all of the phases of managing the journeys between the Dolomite valleys and the lowlands and a reflection on how the incentive policy has in some ways had a negative influence on the activities of passionate shepherds.
- Alice’s pastoral maternity and the ways in which being on the move has affected every aspect of her life as a mother and her child.
- Almost all pastoral farmers rely on salaried manpower from outside the family. In the past these were usually workers from Romania but now increasingly common are youngsters originating from West Africa, and in this case from Senegal and Mali.
The research narrates their navigation with a caravan and family belongings, through helping immigrant shepherds, local authorities’ unfriendly rules, strategies to access pastureland and feeding animals, animal welfare and health practices and the recent pandemic.
Photo credit: all images are copyright Elena Dacome and used with permission.