A closer look on the historical land management methods explains today’s lack of traditional herd management methods in many parts of Europe, in particular the Alps. Simply said, big sheep herds demanded more management methods, such as shepherds and dogs, than smaller sheep herds. The size of a sheep herd strongly depended, and still does, on the topographical circumstances. As a consequence of this, and of course the permanent presence of the wolf, livestock guarding dog breeds developed in areas with large sheep herds.
Please also read: Wolf Survival linked to Livestock Guarding Dogs
Latifundia systems in areas with large sheep herds
Some centuries ago large sheep herds, particularly in open landscapes in Italy and Spain, were mostly owned by only a few landowners. Notably monasteries, the pope, a bishop, king or other noble persons would own a herd containing several thousands sheep. The name of this system of large-scale land and livestock ownership by only a few people is known as the Latifundia system. In the late middle ages these sheep were the main capital for the wool market. Additionally, the sheep were essential for cheese and meat production for the cities. To protect the source of this capital the land owners invested into herd management. Professional shepherds were working year round – ‘wandering shepherds’. As a consequence, various working dogs breeds developed. The Latifundia system was also present in England, Wales and Scotland. However, wolves were eradicated in the UK early on. Therefore, these farmers mostly used herding dogs.
Connection to the survival of the wolf
There is a link between the survival of the wolf in some parts of Italy, like the Sila mountains, Calabria and the southern Abruzzo, and the large sheep herds of these regions. Deer and other wildlife was sparse in the 1950s and 60s. Wildlife numbers were so low that the upcoming local hunting societies even started to introduce other huntable species. For example wild boar from Eastern Europe. The local wolf population (Canis lupus italicus) would not have been able to sustain on these low wildlife numbers. Biologists see the survival of wolves in the Abruzzo and Calabria connected to the large sheep herds. As mentioned, shepherds with guarding and herding dogs managed these herds. However, the herds were simply too large and the terrain too wide to control every animal. The wandering shepherds were familiar with the presence of wolves. Occasional wolf killings were a part of daily life.
However, a hysteria against the wolf, like in some areas of the Alps right now, never came up. It cannot be denied though that there were conflicts between hunters, wildlife interested parties and the farmers. Compensations for wolf killings started in 1976. However, months might pass between a wolf kill and payment. Another point worth mentioning is the rural exodus of the second half of the 20th century. In particular, in agriculturally shaped and mountainous areas of Italy, people moved to the cities. The reason behind this was to find higher paid and regular work as industrial workers. The following lack of farm workers led to the abandonment of pastures, farmland and alpine meadows. Forest re-developed on these former cultivated landscapes. These forests offered perfect habitats for the introduced wildlife to thrive again. This influenced the food supply of the local wolf populations as well, decreasing the existing conflicts.
Small herds in small-scale pasture lands
Ownership structures in the Alps are mostly small-scale and often fragmented. This also applies for grazing rights of alpine meadows and alps. Together with the topographical circumstances of the Alps, large, or even joint, sheep herds did not make sense in most areas. Year-round grazing wasn’t possible in the Alps anyway. So reducing the herds in autumn, as it is still done today, was probably already an established practice in the middle ages and modern times. In the Alps, hayfarming with cattle up on mountain pastures dates back to the late middle ages. As a consequence of all this, the working dog breeds developing in the Alps were used for herding, hauling and protecting the house. Many breeds in this area are seen as allround working dogs.
A list of rare alpine livestock species by Günter Jaritz lists several working dog breeds from the Alps. I does not contain any livestock guarding dogs though. In most parts of the Alps, shepherds were rare and dogs were mostly herding instead of guarding the livestock. The local method against the wolf was simply shooting them. Today’s lack of local guarding dog breeds in the Alps proves that shooting the wolf is not a very long-lasting and sustainable method.
Herd management for middle sized sheep herds
This quick look on the historic development of herd management and the coexistence with the wolf shows that herd sizes play an important role. Central Europe hardly sees sheep herds with thousands of animals anymore. In particular, the Alps have smaller herds, whereby the largest herds contain several hundreds of sheep. Examples are the herds on the Swiss Ramuz Alp. For herds with several hundreds of animals a shepherd with several guarding and herding dogs, as well as a night corral with electrical fences, is the best method for proper herd management. For smaller herds containing less than a hundred of sheep; electrical Flexinet fences, 108cm high, and a night corral might work well. The most appropriate herd management measures depend on the size of the herds as well as on the topographical circumstances. The European Wilderness Society is currently working on a handbook explaining best-practice livestock management methods in Europe.