Plugging Pastoralism

It’s good to see that I’m not the only nutcase.  Surfing the net a few weeks ago I came across Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice and a stunning article about Kurdish nomadic shepherds in eastern Turkey.

Pastoralism Journal is an open-access, inter-disciplinary, peer-reviewed, on-line journal that publishes articles about traditional herding societies all over the world.  Subjects range from ‘people to people’ diplomacy, the impacts of industrial development and insurgency on pastoral groups, environmental-archaeological studies, to modernizing traditional pastoral practices and what to do with sick animals and many more.  The areas covered so far dart from Southern Iran, to Northern Sudan, to Northern Mexico, as well as Cameroon, Tibet, North-East Pakistan, Australia – and Romania.

Its editors, Carol Kerven and Roy Behnke, explain:

‘Pastoralists rely on rangelands and livestock for their livelihoods, but exhibit different levels of mobility and market involvement, and operate under a variety of different land tenure regimes. Pastoralism publishes research that influences public policy, to improve the welfare of these people and better conserve the environments in which they live.’

One of the articles on Romania was Long and short-distance transhumant pastoralism in Romania: past and present drivers of change (2010) by Sally Huband, David McCracken and Annette Mertens.  The three researchers interviewed 23 shepherds and made a case study of one village in the counties of Brasov, Covasna, and Sibiu.  They write that the outlook for the survival of Romanian transhumance isn’t good (no surprises there!) but cite Spain as an example of a country where shepherds have protested loudly enough to effect a change in government policy and help preserve their long-distance drovers’ routes, called las canadas.  (In 1993, Spanish shepherds led thousands of sheep into Madrid’s centre which blocked the traffic and forced the authorities to take notice of them – since when the event has become an annual fiesta, visited by even more thousands of people.)

Though justly maligned for ill-fitting rules, the EU has also been doing its bit.  Huband et al take up the story:

‘Agri-environment measures (AEMs) have been in existence in Europe since the 1980s but became a formal part of EU policy under regulation 2078/92 in the 1990s.  It is now compulsory for all EU member states to implement AEMs but they remain voluntary in the sense that farmers choose whether or not to apply for an agri-environment agreement. Farmers that are successful in applying for AEM funding are required to follow a set of management prescriptions that aim to maintain or recreate specific habitats considered to be of value for nature conservation.’

Earlier in their article, the authors gave us some of the reasons why ‘low-intensity’ grazing and transhumance are important for the environment:

‘Nationally there are an estimated 2.4 million hectares of semi-natural grasslands (RMARD 2008 p34) and one source estimates the existence of 1.2 million hectares of semi-natural pasture and hay meadow habitats in the mountains (Rey et al. 2001).  The importance of Romania’s semi-natural grasslands is being highlighted by ecologists, conservationists and in rural development policy documents (Sârbu et al. 2004, Baur et al. 2006, Schmitt and Rákosy 2007, RMARD 2008). The country has an exceptionally high diversity of species, largely because of the occurrence of several biogeographical regions but also because of localised areas of low-intensity agricultural land use (Baur et al. 2006). Taking Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) as an example, 50 per cent of all species listed in Annex II of the Habitats Directive and 65 per cent of all Annex IV species are recorded in Romania (Schmitt and Rákosy 2007). The conservation of butterflies is particularly dependent on the continued maintenance of low-intensity pastoral land use practices (Schmitt and Rákosy 2007, Huband 2009).

‘The Habitats Directive provides the main legal basis for the conservation of biodiversity in Europe and European Union (EU) member states are obliged to designate Natura 2000 sites to protect priority habitats and species. Romania joined the EU in January 2007 and is now in the process of designating Natura 2000 sites and is also implementing agri-environment programmes aspart of the national rural development programme for the period 2007–2013.

‘The Romanian government has chosen to implement an agri-environment measure that will specifically target the conservation of the country’s semi-natural grasslands (RMARD 2008: 713).  The successful conservation of these habitats whether within Natura 2000 sites or in the wider countryside will ultimately depend on the continuation of low-intensity pastoral land management practices including pendulation (as will be discussed, the relatively small number of transhumance flocks and their use of arable stubbles for winter forage means that this pastoral system plays a lesser role in the conservation of semi-natural grasslands). The continuation of pastoralism and pendulation is in turn dependent upon the existence of certain economic, social and political drivers. These drivers are in the process of change as Romania’s economy develops and EU policies are implemented.’

Sally Huband and her co-authors are pressing for habitat conservation to be one of the main ‘drivers’ for preserving those semi-natural grasslands, the (often) unfenced expanses of herb-rich terrain that comprise 32.7% of all Romania’s farmland.

Habitat – and pasture – loss, migration of Romania’s working population (another form of transhumance?) to richer EU countries, concentration of producing less hardy breeds of sheep for meat rather than milk (cheese), disaffection with rural life, these are some of the reasons why transhumance is vanishing.

In Policies and practices of pastoralism in Europe (2011) Carol Kerven and Roy Behnke discuss three different shepherding scenarios for conserving traditional pastoralism, in Sweden, Italy and Greece.  It’s becoming obvious that since the EU began championing shepherds, another problem exists: how do you define traditional pastoralism and how do you preserve its authenticity.  But that is a nicety.

It might seem surprising, but my (limited) observations have shown that Romanian shepherds, hired men included, are not all dying to leave their profession, vocation – whatever you want to call it.  Far from it, although they are not sentimental about it either.  Historically, raising sheep has often been seen as a stepping stone to higher things, and keeping sheep has been a measure of wealth.  Why is it then that so many people flock (no pun intended) to the annual folk festivals of villages such as Jina, Vaideeni and other places where sheep – if not drink and girl-trapping – are the unifying factor, why do men in their 20s long to go on the road, as transhumance is called, as they do to go on long sea voyages?  Why is there such a desire to get away from ‘it all’ and keep sheep?  Could it be that economic growth, consumer goods and acquiring money for its own sake have limited appeal?  Or that the solitude you find by the sea, in the forests and mountains has a benefit that has still not been quantified?  It’s not all down to money.

When I met Romanian shepherds on their spring walk in Salaj, they pointed out species of plants that I had never seen before.  What child of the 21st century could – would bother to – do that?

Let’s leave the last word to two more of Pastoralism Journal’s correspondents, Anna Degteva and Christian Nellemann.  In their article, Nenets migration in the landscape: impacts of industrial development in Yamal peninsula, Russia, (2013) they write about the totally different perception that two people can have of the same place, in this case the Nenets herders’ sacred sites:

‘From the point of view of the industrial workers, the sacred place was ‘preserved’, believing that this was limited to the actual offering/praying site; however, the herders felt that it was desecrated. Such sites are particularly sensitive, as there may be sacred hills, creeks or rocks far beyond that of an actual offering site. This is but one example of the very different perceptions of the landscape between the herders and modern society. The authors have noted many such similar examples in different parts of the world, including in North America and the Nordic countries, where traditional indigenous sacred sites used to offer gifts in gratitude for the land and its blessings – typically including an entire valley or calving ground – are merely regarded by modern society as a site-specific localized spot, which is limited to where the offering was placed near a rock, similar to the physical limitations of a church yard or church. Traditional landowner views amongst Europeans and westerners – or in most urbanized societies – are contrasted by the spiritual relationship between the herders and the land incorporating much greater areas and a perception based on user right – not land ownership – a concept among many traditional indigenous peoples which would be considered a sacrilege or impossible.’

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