Transhumance

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As a natural resource, mountains wherever they are have provided over the millennia one common feature that has aided the agricultural survival of mountain people, and that is the phenomenon of transhumance. The practice of seasonal migration with sheep and cattle to summer pastures in alpine habitats can be found across Europe and Asia. These summer grazings have their own specific names in many languages. In the Celtic world of Scotland and Ireland it is sheiling, in Norway saeter or stel, in Switzerland, and in neighbouring German-speaking regions, Alp or Alm, and in Turkey Yayla. One of the great advantages of the summer grazings, apart from releasing lower altitude lands for crops and hay meadows, is their freedom from drought. Mountains attract clouds and precipitation and when pastures at lower altitudes have their summer productivity reduced by water shortages the summer grazings can prove valuable sources of green lush pasture. In the past mountain pastures were particularly useful for dairy farming as butter and cheese could be made in the mountain and later carried back down to the valley. However, there was always one inherent practical disadvantage in the summer pasture transhumance system, namely the loss of manure which might have been more usefully applied to the lower altitude arable fields.

The ancient human use of mountain slopes for hay meadows has contributed greatly to the colourful appearance of the European Alps in early summer.

The suppression of forest in favour of meadows and pasture opened up, particularly in calcareous regions, a terrain that could support a herb-rich flora. Transhumance has been practised for over 5000 years in the Alps and coupled with the practice of cutting hay from alpine meadows has caused the evolution of a mountain grassland flora that is still to be seen on the alpine slopes above the treeline in early summer. Five millennia of haymaking have selected for a flora that has had to flower and set seed before the mowing season began. To this we owe the spectacular early summer floral display of the Alps.

Sadly, current trends in Europe reveal a large-scale abandonment of alpine pastures with trees readvancing over pastures that have provided summer grazings for centuries and probably millennia. Even in Norway, with its limited area of lowland pastures and long tradition of summer pasturage in the mountain saeter (stol), trees are now advancing up mountainsides that nineteenth-century photographs showed as treeless.

Fig. 11.27 Cutting hay in the traditional manner on an alpine meadow near Innsbruck (Austria). Hay cutting after the bulk of the alpine flora has flowered is essential for the preservation of the floristic diversity of these alpine meadows and the farmers receive a subsidy for continuing this practice.

Fig. 11.27 Cutting hay in the traditional manner on an alpine meadow near Innsbruck (Austria). Hay cutting after the bulk of the alpine flora has flowered is essential for the preservation of the floristic diversity of these alpine meadows and the farmers receive a subsidy for continuing this practice.

In Europe at least, the time has passed when shepherds, cowherds and milkmaids took to the mountains for the summer, returning in the autumn with their flocks, herds and dairy produce. Subsidies are, however, given to farmers in several countries to preserve some remnants of this upland way of life. In Switzerland payments are made to farmers for mowing the alpine meadows and thus preserving the grassland flora of these alpine meadows. Much of this cutting is still done by hand with a scythe, by a rural population that is sympathetic to this cause. How long such a relationship will endure for a laborious task not founded in necessity is questionable (Fig. 11.27). However, should climatic conditions change, and increased temperatures prevail, and the migration of rain belts impose summer droughts in the valleys, then alpine pastures and transhumance might once again become a valuable pastoral resource.

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