Livestock herding in the Asturian Mountains, Spain

The Spanish Asturias is a region with a complex mountainous terrain. A landscape of almost inaccessible mountains and deep valleys, which humans have inhabited for thousands of years. Towns and villages are scattered across the region, from the Cantabrian Sea to altitudes above 1 400 m in the Cantabrian Mountains. The human population is spread across the valleys, which is also reflected by the way people manage their livestock. Most of them are characteristic smallholdings. Nowadays, the people keep their livestock on thousands of small parcels, while agriculture nearly disappeared.

Please also read: How Spain brutally reduces its wolf population

Disappearing traditional practices

Keeping small scale livestock is an important husbandry in this type of land, and heavily subsidised by the European Union through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In the Asturias region, large areas of open land and meadows are scarce. You find large pastures, the so-called ‘summer pastures’, normally in the high mountain areas. This is where the farmers take their animals to spend the snow-free months there, usually between June and September. However, this traditional husbandry is disappearing, especially because the high mountain areas not not easily accessible. In many cases, vehicles are not able to reach these pastures at all.

Left without protection

Until forty years ago, shepherds always accompanied the livestock in these high mountain areas. The shepherds lived in precarious mountain huts, the so-called ‘brañas’, during those summer months. Nowadays, this ancient tradition completely disappeared and livestock management changed dramatically.

Livestock owners transport their livestock up to the high mountain areas, leaving them without any surveillance. Only in some areas, herding dogs join the livestock herds. Yet, people use this kind of protection also less, as the dogs need food regularly. This implies that the livestock owner has to climb up to the area several days a week. In October the people gather their livestock down in the valleys, distributed on small meadows. In most cases, the livestock stays there without any proper protection until the end of May of the following year.

Impact of sport hunting

The wolf is present in the Asturian mountains all-year round. According to the latest estimations, there is a population of about 30 family groups, possibly between 200 and 250 individuals. Normally, the wolves are feeding on abundant wild ungulates, like roe deer, red deer and wild boar. However, is the Asturian region this is not the case, because wildlife numbers are low due to sport hunting. As a result, a larger part of the wolf’s diet is carrion. Mainly domestic animals that diet by natural causes, become part of the diet of vultures, bears and wolves.

City farmers on the country side

There are over 100 000 cows in the Asturias. A considerable part of them graze freely and are not kept for the production of meat. The possibility to protect them against wolf attacks is very low. The young farmers, financially supported by the CAP are not professional farmers. Most of them have their jobs in the city. They do not employ any livestock protection, neither dogs nor electric fences. In fact, farmers claim that red deer is likely to destroy the electric fences. As a result, these ‘city’ farmers check their cattle once a week or once a month. Similar occurs at the widespread horse farming activities in the Asturias. Horses roam free and unprotected in the mountains throughout the year.

Difficulties in protection

In generally, there is a very low level of livestock protection for livestock that is grazing freely in the mountains and valleys of Asturias. Only a few herding dogs are present in the high mountain areas during summer. In winter, livestock owners keep their animals in small and scattered parcels of 1-2 hectares in the valleys. Therefore, farmers cannot have 2 or 3 herding dogs with each herd. Many farmers would need 10 to 15 dogs to protect every parcel. Not a single farmer is willing to keep that amount of dogs as their maintenance costs are too high. Not to mention the additional expenses to get to the different herds in order to feed the dogs. This gets even more problematic when the farmers have to care for the dogs during the summer months in the high mountains.

As the horses roam freely over thousands of hectares, electric fences are not the solution for proper protection. At the smaller parcels in the valleys, cattle is fenced in by traditional low stone walls or dense hedges and vegetation. It is said that electric fences are not feasible in these territories, as wild animals are tearing them down.

Traditional protection

Traditionally, the protection in Asturias depended on shepherds. They lived permanently with their cattle, in the mountain huts during summer and the valleys during winter. This kind of protection disappeared. Nowadays, the modern ‘city’ farmers want livestock keeping to be effortless. They do not consider expensive solutions, like maintaining dogs, or something that requires extra work. In fact, most of these livestock owners do not event want to put in extra effort to protect their animals.

New protection technology

It is thus very important to find new technological ways to improve livestock protection in Asturias. Due to the presence of wolves, it is important to have a proper livestock protection system against large carnivores. Some of the newest technological protection measures that people are testing for their effectiveness, includes special deterrent collars. These collars could real the attack of predators, using high frequency sounds.

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.

Motto: SYSTEMIC FOREST ECOSYSTEM MANAGEMENT INSTEAD OF WOOD FACTORY

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