Science - November 4, 2004

Alterra describes highways for livestock

Once a year a shepherd drives two thousand sheep through the centre of Madrid. By doing this he retains his right to use the caòada real through the city, one of the thousands of kilometres of roads that are used to get the herds of sheep from summer pastures to winter pastures. Alterra made an inventory of these transhumance routes, which are a Europe-wide phenomenon.

'At a regional level people are very active, and they have a lot of knowledge,' explains Dr Rob Jongman of Alterra about the inventory. 'But this knowledge does not reach Brussels.' The transhumance routes are the relatively unknown but profound result of the old farming custom of transferring farm animals from the winter to the summer pastures. Spain has 115,000 kilometres of transhumance routes of different types. Nine caĆ²ades reales [royal cattle track] form a national network of ten thousand kilometres.

It is a harsh life for the shepherds. In Romania for instance, they drive the herds of sheep for up to three hundred kilometres on foot from mountain villages in southern Transylvania to the summer pastures in the south of Romania and back again later in the year. During this journey the shepherd shears the sheep, makes cheese from the milk and sees that lambing takes place safely.

The difficulty is that this life is becoming less and less compatible with modern life and modern agriculture. The financial rewards are small, and both European and national agriculture policies focus on more modernised and intensive forms of farming. 'Keeping herds of sheep (in Spain and France), goats (in Greece) and cows (in Switzerland) is economically marginal as an agricultural activity in Europe,' states Jongman. 'But for the people who do the work it is not marginal.'

There are still three good reasons to retain the transhumance routes, states Jongman. The first two are the preservation of old cultural landscapes and biodiversity maintenance. Grazing keeps the landscape diverse and open. 'When you stop grazing you get forests and shrubbery, which means that also the visual diversity disappears. The transhumance practices also lead to a higher biodiversity. Some of the habitats which are under European legislation are maintained by grazing.'

The grazing also makes the landscape safer. In Switzerland, grazing of grass helps reduce the risk of avalanches. And in the more arid areas of the Mediterranean countries, the herds reduce the risk of large forest fires, because the undergrowth is grazed right down or burned carefully in order to get good pastures the following summer.
The next step after this inventory is to seek methods to preserve the transhumance routes by combining the old cultural habitats and agricultural methods with recreation, tourism and new forms of agricultural policy. / MW

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