Cultural heritage made by men during centuries
People living in Alps since the late Middle Ages grazed the cattle, sheep and goat at the meadows in the high and steep mountains. The elevation interval of their activities reached from 600 m up to 2 900 m above sea level.
Many people believed that grazing of domestic animals in the Alps is an integral part of the local identity. Everywhere one looks, can see signs of grazing, either in the distant past, grazing that happened recently or even today.
A person who know to read history while looking at the landscape can imagine how much effort of the local people were put into transforming the Alpine landscape into the form, we know it today.
Diversity of traditions
Many people living today throughout the Alps considers the grazing at the alpine meadows as a part of their cultural heritage. Grazing for them is a tradition inherited for ancient times from their ancestors.
For them alpine pastures and alms are the epitome of countryside life, and the tradition of summer grazing. It is a heritage that needs to be protected.
For them herd flocks of cows or sheep and goats majestically walking down the mountain, accompanied and guarded by traditionally dressed shepherds and dogs are part of their cultural heritage.
Each region in the Alps has its own tradition, which differs from each other in details.
Every year in June, several thousand of cows, sheep and goats are driven high up to the lush Alpine pasturelands. They spend two-three summer months in the mountains. Shepherds regularly control and search for animals by using binoculars, taking care of injured animals and refill saltlicks.
The livestocks return to the villages in the valley around mid-September. This seasonal movement of flocks has a tradition several thousand years old. That kind of similar activities are happening pretty much all over the Alps. This unique habit was for example in Ötztal Alps already recognised by UNESCO named; “Ötz Valley Sheep Drive”, as a part of humanity cultural heritage. There are similar activities also in other parts of the Alps.
“…during many centuries, farmers ventured higher into the Alps, clearing forests and expanding their pastures high up to the mountains… our father and grandfather used to spend summer on the high mountains pastures, like also their predecessors did… their labour continuously shape the image of Alps landscape as we see it today in many villages throughout the Alps…”.
Family stories like this illustrate strong relationship between local people and Alps. There are stories about livestock grazing on mountain alpine meadows.
Motivation is coming from young people
Nowadays, many traditions inherited from grandfathers are experiencing a revival. The number of young people who come from cities for the summer to herd livestock in the mountains is increasing.
They are satisfied with meaningful activity in the nature, taking care of the farm, contact with local people (often herd owners) and also with tourists. They are the ones looking for physical activity around the herd, going up to the mountain pastures and going down to the village for supplies.
International recognition is only part of story
To get UNESCO recognition is of course a strong motivation, but it is not everything. Experience shows that summer grazing is very beneficial for animal health. Younger animals in particular develop better resistance. Regular grazing also maintains mountain pastures and support biodiversity. The presence of the livestock on mountain pastures also benefits tourism.
UNESCO recognition is a great tool to revive interest and international recognition. It supports upholding traditions and practices that are passed down from generation to generation and give communities a sense of identity and continuity.
The reality for mountain farmers is often harsh and the romanticized image of alpine shepherding does not always reflect reality.
Climate change dries up pastures, tourists throw trash, mountain bikers ignore marked bike trails. The presence of native predators increases the demands on guards and put extra workload on them especially at night.
In the wave of romanticism, many idealize the work of shepherds who take care of their livestock in the mountains while the sun shines, but the life on the pasture can be really hard.
The alpine pasture season also includes traditional crafts such as cheese making, shingle making and dry brickwork repair. A special chapter is local custom such as the traditional melody played on the Alpine horn to call cattle from the pasture or the Alpine blessing recited from the top of the nearest mountain every evening.