Pastoral schools and uncertainty in southern Europe

By Michele Nori, PASTRES

A new EUI working paper by Alessandro Dessi explains the findings from a study on pastoral schools in southern Europe, asking how they are responding to the issue of uncertainty.

Schools to train new pastoralists are booming in southern Europe. The aim of these initiatives is often manifold. On the one hand, there is an effective problem of a lack of workforce, and very limited renewal from generation to generation of people wanting to extensively engage in looking after grazing animals, and who might eventually scale up as livestock keepers themselves. As somebody put it, ‘pastoralists of tomorrow are likely to be much different from those of yesterday’ (Luca Battaglini, Rete Appia activist).

The climate is changing, policies are shifting, consumer requirements are evolving, technologies are developing, and markets are transforming; the knowledge and practices of pastoralists must also embrace innovation and adapt accordingly. But there is much more.

Most schools have also been established as a way to stimulate a discussion and raise societal and policy awareness on the uncertainties and challenges affecting pastoral systems. Pastoral regions are among those suffering from the fastest depopulation rates in Europe. The issue of ‘land abandonment’ in the mountains, drylands and islands of southern Europe is a matter of specific policy concern for European policymakers at different levels. The problems of limited availability of pastoral workforce and the related problems of generational renewal are widespread, as recent research shows.

Even in regions where pastoral labour is well remunerated, finding skilled and committed young people is a challenge. The demand in society for such training is significant. For instance, in the LIFE-funded ShepForBio school recently launched in Casentino (Italy), more than 160 applications have been received for only 6 vacancies (for the first year).

Participants in a pastoral school.

In a recent study, PASTRES investigated whether and how the existing pastoral schools have approached the topic of uncertainty and factored this into their curriculum and training programmes. The aim of the study was to assess how well the development of pastoral schools is situated to respond to contemporary uncertainties faced by pastoralists in southern Europe, and what lessons can be learned for the broader management of uncertainties in training programs as well as for agricultural and conservation policies.

The area investigated ranges from the Swiss Alps to the Canary Islands, including ongoing efforts in Morocco, which suggests that the training of pastoralists is a widespread issue. The variety encountered is enormous and shows how pastoral practices are tailored in diverse local settings.

A map of the pastoral schools investigated in the study.

‘Uncertainty – as you mention. But nobody really works on it!’

Uncertainty is indeed frequently debated in training sessions, desk classes and field practices. However, it seems difficult to factor this into the curriculum. The main reasons are a) the disciplinary format of most training modules, which, at times, fail to address the complexity of pastoral systems; b) pastoral schools are often initiated and hosted by formal centres which rely on fairly conventional classroom-based curriculum.

In a sense, pastoral schools partly reflect and reproduce the inconsistencies of most institutional setups when dealing with pastoralism, with the desire to format, frame, quantify, standardize, and simplify knowledge and practices that are, by definition, fluid and flexible.

The aims of different schools may vary considerably, along with the profiles of the candidates, and the professional skills proposed. Most schools are closely embedded in their specific territory, with a strong sense of local identity, and they provide specific training on the species, breeds and products of the area. Some train candidates to become just shepherds, while others aim to consolidate their capacities to become livestock owners in their own right. Accordingly, the training packages and logistics are quite differentiated, with most training modules devoted to livestock care, environmental management and dairy production, complemented by a variety of other themes attuned to local specificities.

Uncertainty often features in relation to environmental dynamics, seasonal variability and climate change. Co-existing with predating carnivores is also becoming increasingly relevant in the region, together with conflicts with other land users – farmers, urban dwellers, tourists, natural parks, etc. However, cases exist where these stakeholders are invited into the school so that a dialogue is established. Policy ambiguities, the burdens of the related administrative procedures, and market volatility are becoming part of the curriculum, along with the growing concern about the changing demands of society and the technological developments that pastoralists must deal with.

Most pastoral schools operate under rather uncertain political and financial conditions, and often have to trade off stability for flexibility. Public funds are the main source of economic support and often come from EU programmes and initiatives. The real challenge is to get the profession of pastoralists recognised and appreciated. And although this perspective seems to prevail among European citizens and politicians, the benefits of these cultural changes have yet to materialise in improvements to the recognition, rights and welfare of pastoralists.

Alessandro Dessi’s new working paper concludes that uncertainty touches all aspects of pastoral life, from the biodiversity of pasture to the final consumer, including a very broad range of fields, and therefore, we cannot expect one single actor to address them all.

Pastoral schools seem well-placed to cover some of these domains. However, many other issues need to be tackled together within a larger set of policies, land use, technical assistance, and market measures, which requires the engagement of a larger panel of stakeholders, starting from decision makers, all the way to the final consumer.

Under the right conditions, then, the schools could help those facing uncertainty in many other fields. They have a potential role in offering support to participatory research on new herd management techniques (virtual fencing, use of drone), and ecosystem services, which would also support the recognition of the stewardship of pastoralists for the conservation of rangelands. The schools could also be involved in testing solutions to tackle issues such as livestock predation, as well as the conflict between shepherds (more specifically, their dogs), tourists and park management authorities.

A larger set of issues should be dealt outside the schools: these include the fundamental reasons why it is very hard nowadays to start or continue a pastoral activity with a staff large enough to guarantee a better quality of life to the single operator, as well as the necessary specialization to deal with the expanded set of dimensions acquired by pastoralism way beyond the traditional herd management and delivery of milk, meat and dairy at the farm gate. If suitable measures were adopted, the generational turnover could involve many more people than the current and very narrow set of sons-of-the-business or those fleeing unemployment and burn-out in urban areas.

On the issue of uncertainty, the topic itself is fairly complicated to explain to school leaders, and not because they lack the necessary tools to understand it. On the contrary, they see the issue clearly, often fragmented in countless cases and examples, which they would be more than open to sharing and discussing.

However, school leaders highlight the difficulty in figuring out an effective way to include uncertainty in the approach to teaching itself, often acknowledging that this would require dedicated tutoring and mentoring of trainers. This also provides the potential for a course to be designed by PASTRES.

Based on the framework of the LIFE-funded ShepForBio, the first International conference on ‘The Role of Pastoral Schools in the Management of Natural Habitats’ is being organised on 10 & 11 May 2023 in Florac (France) to continue the conversation, and to provide a better understanding of how pastoral schools can effectively contribute to support the next generation of pastoralists to respond to the contemporary uncertainties they will likely face in their profession.

Find out more

The working paper ‘Uncertainty and the Pastoral Schools in the Expanded European Region’ by Alessandro Dessi is published in the EUI working paper series, no. RSC 2023/33.

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