Grazing in Stilfser Valley

The roots of grazing in Stilfser Valley date back to centuries ago. Since then, for over 2000 years, grazing was the most important activity of the local people living in this area. Long-term impact of man made grazing, left very visible signs throughout the Alps. The Stilfser Valley is not an exception.

Stilfser Valley

Stilfser Valley is small side valley in a watershed of the larger Trafoi Valley. It is located in the western corner of South Tyrol where the mighty Ortles Mountain rises to the sky more than 4.000 meters. This massive is offering a magnificent high mountain scenery to the Stilfser Valley and village Stilf.

Village Stilfs

Small tiny village Stilfs, is located at the foothills of Stilfser Valley. Today approximately 1.000 inhabitants inhabit it. Since ancient times, local people used the surrounding mountains to earn a living, either by working in the forest or on the meadows. The impact of local people for a couple thousand years is very visible on the surrounding land.

The impact of local people for a couple of thousand years is very visible on the surrounding land, forests were removed

History of the Village Stilfs

The earliest signs of human presence in Trafoi and Stilfser Valley goes back to a long time ago. The first documented historical records are coming from the Roman period. That was in time when Romans occupied the enclaves in the southwest corners of the Alps.

History of grazing in Stilfser Valley

The very first archaeological foundlings indicate that high-altitude pastures on southern slopes of the Alps began around 4 500 BC. The following discovery of remains from alpine dairy huts, and other archaeological studies proofed that simple alpine farming began already in the Bronze Age (4 000-3 000 BC). 

During that time, Stilfser Valley was very likely just a piece of remote wilderness. Too far away and inaccessible for people roaming in this part of the Alps. 

Only later, several centuries later, there was a time when the number of people living in this area slowly increased. Their impact was more and more significant on surrounding forests. The forest was firstly logged around settlements, later on closer to the newly settled villages. Newly built simple roads became very important and then in the following period, extensive man-made pastures have been created above the tree line.

Impact of grazing in Stilfser Valley

Man activities left significant footprints on the land and around the Stilfser Valley. More than 2.000 years later, the land all around the settlement was actively managed and used. The result of that activity was, that forests, particularly mountain forests around the tree line, were replaced by extensive grassy land.  

During that process, many hundred meters above the current tree line, forests mainly built up by conifers trees, were removed. That previous forest consisted of spruce, pinus cembra, larch, junipers and rhododendron. Forest claimed 500-600 meter higher than today. The higher-lying dwarf pine very likely formed a dense belt up to the summit ridges at an altitude of about 3,000 meters. All this extensive forests were removed by man and replaced by lush alpine meadows during long centuries.

The previous forest was built by spruce, pinus cembra, larch, junipers and rhododendron. This kind of forest covered the majority of Stilfser Valley

Current experience with grazing in Stilfser Valley

In the last several decades grazing is on slow decline in many parts of the Alps, including Stilfser Valley. The decreasing pressure of human-managed grazing is accompanied by a slow and often spontaneous natural regeneration of the forest. Currently the fragments of the forest are slowly climbing up to the height, where it grew ca 2.000 years ago.

This process however is combined with a growing impact of climate change, so forests are very likely climbing higher where it used to grow in the past. Currently we can find the individual trees of pinus cembra or larch almost around the peak of Mt. Chavalatsch (2.999meters)

Future of grazing in Stilfser Valley

It is not easy to predict what is going to happen with a traditional activity such as grazing in this part of the Alps. To maintain traditional model of grazing as inherited from the past generation will be not easy in the coming decades. Intensive support from local and national government, European Union and number of local and international NGOs is very important in this process. 

However, without commitment and interest of local people to maintain inherited way of life will be not easy to continue on the long-term basis. Support provided by partners can help but without commitment of locals there is only small chance to implement sustainable model of alpine pasture applicable in nowadays and in the coming future.


One alternative wich is currently being developed, could be used to develop the grazing zoning system. In this newly developed zoning system, it will likely be easy to identify the zone with the traditional grazing, transitional zone and zone without any human activity.  Model areas which are already developed using the zoning system in some parts of the Alps, can be used as a motivation for this process.

Sheep grazing in the mountains is much more a way of life than an economic activity.

Viera Vydarena
Wilderness supporter

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