Migrating with the Seasons
The seasonal movement of livestock with their human tenders is called transhumance, and it is practiced throughout the world. I am one of a global population of fifty million shepherds. My kin may be bronzed Kazakhs, or black-skinned Africans, dark-haired Spaniards, brown-eyed Indians, or olive-skinned Basques, but it’s no matter—our similarities are greater than our differences. They are my people.
Some who profess to be concerned with nature and all that is natural take the view that humankind is somehow not part of the natural equation. But mankind is integral to the wholeness of nature. We’re part of nature, not outside it as mere observers. It’s the human aspect of nature that I fear is in the process of being lost, and it’s happening worldwide. The practice of transhumance involves man and beast living together on the land, moving together with the seasons, responding to natural conditions. It involves becoming a part of nature.
Transhumance is most visible to me, where I live, when I see domestic sheep herds on open rangelands. The herds slowly move with the seasons, wintering on the windblown sage lands near the Colorado border, moving north as the days get longer. They arrive in western Wyoming’s Farson country by early May, pausing on their journey to give birth to bright white lambs before continuing to graze their way into the Wind River Range, reaching high-elevation meadows in July, and finally being chased back to lower country by September snows.
Sheepherders live with the sheep, walking among them by day, hearing those small teeth nibble and clip the tasty new vegetative growth, watching little tufts of dirt rise into the air as hooves strike the ground as the sheep move as one. Herders gently lend a hand to a ewe straining in the process of birthing, and are comforted as they listen to soft sheep sounds in the darkness of night in an archaic camp. The movement of the sheep, and their human herders, is as natural as the movement of the wildlife herds that follow the same path. The nomadic herders know much about nature because they are a part of it.
Transhumance is agriculture in its most natural form. It is food production without chemicals and captivity, in a pristine landscape. If we lose the practice of transhumance, we will have lost a vital component of the natural state of humankind.
Migrating with the seasons in response to food availability is a natural occurrence that has taken place for millions of years. Renowned Spanish naturalist Jesus Garzón reports that for the last five million years, Iberian wildlife and herbivores have migrated from lowland valleys in winter to summer grazing high in the mountains, and that eight thousand years ago, during the Neolithic period, the shepherds who domesticated wild game continued using these same migration routes. Eventually the network of routes throughout Spain was used for cattle droving and sheep herding, and the first settlements and villages were located along these routes. Garzón maintains that those who seek to exclude man from the natural world are mistaken—man is an essential part of nature, and the natural community has evolved with man’s influence. While some governments are seeking to install “greenways” and “migration corridors,” those with transhumance systems already have these areas in place, and their continued use by pastoralists and livestock will help to maintain their existence.
My involvement with nature is daily, and most often in association with my sheep herd and its guardian animals. Pastoralists throughout the world share similar experiences, becoming a part of the natural world in which they live.
India is a country rich in pastoralism: the Raikas, who tend to camels, the Van Gujjar nomads in the Himalayas, with their water buffalo, and the Ladakhs and their yaks, to name just a few. Yet all of these groups face similar problems with traditional grazing lands blocked due to creation of national parks, forest reserves, or sanctuaries. India’s policy for national conservation areas restricts access to everyone but tourists. Although the Muslim Van Gujjar buffalo herders have migrated across northern India for at least fifteen hundred years, the creation of conservation areas resulted in pressure for nomads to be- come village residents and farmers, with thousands of Van Gujjars forced from traditional lands.
These pastoralists have been left out of conservation and land-management planning, and even Indian pastoralists who are working to provide for the continued existence of local breeds of livestock (cattle, sheep, and buffalo) fail to receive recognition or support for their work with rare breeds.
Tending to animals is a sacred duty in the cultural belief systems of certain Indian communities, and their livestock are important in the local economy. For example, certain cattle breeds such as the Pulikulam are used at night to fertilize fields, resulting in a 50 percent reduction in inorganic fertilizer costs for farmers using this service. At least one rare breed of sheep is used for the same purpose in India, and certain cattle breeds are commonly used as draft animals throughout the country. These various livestock breeds contribute to biodiversity, and are prized for their local adaptations, such as being disease-resistant, and their ability to thrive in harsh environments such as dry land zones.
Nevertheless, it has been estimated that every month one locally adapted livestock breed maintained with indigenous knowledge becomes extinct, replaced with more generic and “higher performance” breeds.
Not only have livestock breeds disappeared, the people who tend these animals also find themselves threatened. The displacement or eviction of people from their traditional lands in the name of environmental conservation has become so widespread that a term has been coined to describe this group of people: conservation refugees. Organizations have been formed to support these displaced peoples, and books have been written to help tell their stories.
Conservation refugees exist on every continent except Antarctica. It has been said that conservation has exceeded resource extraction as the primary source of eviction of indigenous and traditional people from their lands. These people have been forced out by means of proscriptions against the use of historic lands and traditional practices.
Here in America, the situation is less dramatic than in other parts of the world. But the dynamics of displacing individuals involved with livestock are similar. Deals are quietly made behind closed doors, often in a federal agency office. A public-lands-grazing permittee, under pressure from all directions, is approached by a nongovernmental organization offering a hefty payday if the rancher will give up his animal unit months, his grazing pasture on public land. Once that deed is done, the US Forest Service, without any public involvement, but with full knowledge of the details of the private deal that just went down, agrees to not reissue the grazing permit to another permittee. More lands are closed to livestock grazing every year using this technique.
Some say that it’s the permittee’s decision to sell out. That’s true, but this action of closing allotments without scrutiny certainly isn’t sound public policy, and it doesn’t help the livestock industry as a whole, or other livestock producers who would have welcomed the opportunity to graze those allotments. There are also numerous ways to turn a permittee into a “willing seller.” Through deals like these, the western livestock industry is putting itself out of business, one willing seller at a time. The result is that vital links to the transhumance system are eliminated, no longer available for use. Other countries have made the same mistakes, and are now trying to restore these grazing systems, but for some reason, we fail to learn.
Some of the permit deals have been made with the justification of reducing conflicts between livestock and endangered species. At first blush, this might seem to make sense, but I doubt that biological recovery of large carnivores like grizzly bears and gray wolves will stop the closures, since there seems to be no limit to the reasons proposed to close allotments to livestock grazing. When we partition off lands for favored interests, we soon find we’ve lost much land, along with our willingness to tolerate competing interests.
As I walk with the sheep, listening to their gentle murmurs and clipping of the brush and grass as they graze, the guardian dogs approach alongside me, bumping against my legs in gentle greeting. As we walk, with my hands caressing the big dog heads at my sides, I wonder about my shepherd brethren around the world. In our thousands of miles apart, are we having the same experiences? Are they greeted in this way by their guardian dogs, and do they, as I, enjoy hearing the sounds of a herd of ewes and lambs as it moves as one? So many shepherds throughout the world use livestock guardian dogs, and I’ll wager they have as strong a connection to their animals as I have to mine. It’s a certainty that their connection to the natural world in which they live is deep.
This essay is adapted from Cat Urbigkit's book Shepherds of Coyote Rocks. Order autographed copies of the book here.