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Ecological GlossaryPlanet Agriculture



The term transhumance means the seasonal migration of flocks, herds and shepherds.
With this practice, the pastures move from the hilly or mountainous areas to those of the plains, during the winter season, or vice versa during the summer season. The epithet “transhumance”, according to some, derives from the verb transumare, i.e. “to cross”, i.e. to transit on the ground, and derives from the combination of the Latin prefix trans which means “beyond” or “through” and the Latin word humus which means “soil” – “terrain”.
Another more complex Semitic etymological hypothesis traces the etymology to the Akkadian taru (“go around”, “turn”, “turn around”, “go and return”), Akkadian ummanu (“people”, “nation”, ” gente”, “men”) and the Akkadian anaphoric indicative pronoun ša, Aramaic zi (“that”).

Practice of transhumance –
Transhumance is therefore the seasonal movement of cattle along the ancient sheep tracks in the Mediterranean and in the Alps.
Since ancient times, even if with different dynamics, with transhumance, the seasonal movement of livestock has started in order to find more suitable pastures.
Thus every year in spring and autumn, thousands of animals are guided, from dawn to dusk, by groups of shepherds together with their dogs and horses along constant routes between two geographical and climatic regions. In many cases, shepherd families also travel with their livestock.
From a practical technical point of view, we can distinguish two major types of transhumance:
– horizontal transhumance, in flat or flat regions;
– vertical transhumance, which typically applies in mountainous regions.
Transhumance, with its dynamics and modalities, shapes the relationships between people, animals and ecosystems. It involves shared social rituals and practices, caring for animal husbandry, land, forest and water management, and dealing with natural hazards. Transhumant shepherds have in-depth knowledge of the environment, ecological balance and climate change, as it is one of the most sustainable and efficient farming methods. They also possess special skills related to all types of crafts and food production involved. Festivities during spring and autumn mark the beginning and end of transhumance, when porters share food, rituals and stories and introduce younger generations to the practice. The main pastors transmit their specific know-how to the younger generations through daily activities, ensuring the continuity of the practice.

Geographical areas of transhumance –
In central and central-southern Europe, transhumance takes place in some specific geographical areas, among which we mention: the Alpine region (Northern Italy and Austria); Central and Southern Italy; Greece.
In the Alpine region, transhumance is practiced by shepherds in the Italian region of Lombardy and in the Ötztaler Alpen / Alpi Venoste (a mountain range in the central Alps). Here is a traditional journey that starts in Italy from Val Senales /Schanalstal and Val Passiria / Passeier: people and animals are guided over the mountain passes of Timmelsjoch / Passo Rombo (2494m), Hochjoch (2885m) and Niederjoch (3017m) up to the summer pastures located in the Ötztal valley in Austria.
In central and southern Italy the element is present in the regions of Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Sardinia. The element plays a key role in particular for the communities located in Amatrice, whose historic center was destroyed by the recent earthquake of 2016, and Ceccano (Lazio); Aversa degli Abruzzi and Pescocostanzo (Abruzzo); Frosolone (Molise); San Marco in Lamis, San Giovanni Rotondo and Monte Sant’Angelo (Apulia); Rivello (Basilicata); Lacedonia and Zungoli (Campania).
In mainland Greece, migratory herds of goats and sheep are found everywhere. Furthermore, they appear in medium and large islands, mainly in Crete and Evia, but also in Chios, Naxos, Thassos, etc. The focus of herd migration remains in the Region of Thessaly where, to this day, most of the porters reside. Transhumance is also practiced in central Greece and in the Peloponnese regions.
Transhumance is, however, widespread throughout the world and has been developed by various communities on all continents. It is often found in Alpine regions and marginalized and/or ecologically disadvantaged areas.
To describe the phases in which the movements that give rise to transhumance are carried out, the terms are used: “montication” and “demontication”.
With monticazione, a word that derives from the verb monticare, we indicate the initial phase of transhumance, which takes place in the spring period, when the transfer of the herds and shepherds from the lowland areas to the high altitude pastures takes place and the pasture begins .
With demontication we define the subsequent reverse transfer which, in the autumn period, brings the animals and shepherds back from the high-altitude pastures to those of the plains in the descent phase following the summer period of the pasture.
In past centuries, this custom heavily conditioned the life of the shepherd, who could not count on the presence of the typical structures of modern breeding, such as the stable and the foraging, milking and milk refrigeration systems.
Where it is still practised, the transfer of animals often takes place today through road haulage using special trucks, at least where this is possible and economically convenient.

History of transhumance –
As previously mentioned, transhumance has its roots in remote times, and in different ways in various parts of the world.
Marcus Terentius Varro, a Latin georgist of the 1st century BC, in his didactic work De re rustica, relates: Itaque greges ovium longe abigintur ex Apulia in Samnium aestivatum… (Therefore the flocks of sheep are removed from Puglia for a long time towards Sannio in summer . ..), considering transhumance as an economic phenomenon that hinged on the revenues of the Roman state during the Samnite period. It reports excerpts from the life of the Sabelli shepherds who, with their movements, joined distant pastures and the obligation of these to report the flocks they led to pasture in the Apulian territories in order to pay the tribute, due to the coffers of Rome, to use the crossing of public roads (calles publicae). It tells of guardians of flocks who migrated, on a seasonal basis, from Daunia and Bruzio, moving to the areas of Sannio and Lucania.
Even Virgil, in the Georgics, and Pliny the Younger described shepherds who led flocks of sheep in pastures very distant from each other. In the past, many writers have been inspired by the transhumance of the Maremma cowherds and the shepherds of Abruzzo. A particular memory has been outlined, in more recent times, also by Gabriele D’Annunzio in the poem I pastori.
A long research work on the transformations of the transhumant pastoral world was carried out by the anthropologists Anna Cavasinni and Fabrizio Franceschelli at the end of the 1970s. On this theme they then made many documentaries for cinema and television, among these the most important work is Le vie della lana, series in four episodes for RAI.
Historically it seems that the oldest transhumance route is that of the Val Senales, in Alto Adige, dating back even to prehistoric times.
In Italy this custom began mainly from the Abruzzo Apennines, turning both towards the Tuscan and Lazio Maremma (the remains of an ancient cattle track are found near a ford of the Tiber, between Fiano Romano and Passo Corese north of Rome) and especially towards the Tavoliere delle Puglie. It consisted of transporting (“transhuming”) the animals from the mountains of Abruzzo and Molise to the rich pastures of Maremma and Tavoliere. In the south, in particular, the economic importance of this activity was such that it was managed by two specific institutions of the Kingdom of Naples: the Regia dogana della mena delle sheep, based in Lucera and then in Foggia, and the Doganella d’Abruzzo .
After 1447 it became the main economic source for many towns in Abruzzo and remained so until the end of the 1800s. The Aragonese wanted to develop the wool industry, but the results expected by Alfonso of Aragon were not achieved and the wool industry of the Kingdom of Naples was unable to compete with that of Spain, Flanders, England. In these countries, in addition to the development of sheep breeding, the focus was on the development of agriculture, which was not done in the territory of the Kingdom of Naples, causing a delay in local development.
As proof of the importance of this practice in the economy and in society, it has been calculated that in the mid-fifteenth century no less than three million sheep and thirty thousand shepherds traveled the sheep tracks annually and that the impact that sheep farming exerted was such as to provide subsistence, directly or indirectly, to half of the population of Abruzzo. In the seventeenth century the chiefs involved were about five and a half million.
This transfer took place at the end of the hot season, to go in search of suitable areas to spend the winter with the cattle and where to find pastures capable of feeding the huge flocks. At the beginning of a new hot season, it was transhumed again towards the cooler pastures of Molise and Abruzzo.
Transhumance took place via very wide paths, called sheep tracks, provided with longitudinal branches (the tratturelli) and transversal branches (the arms). The journey lasted days and stops were made at pre-arranged places, known as rest stops or “post stations”.
With the unification of Italy the peasants were able to redeem the lands dedicated to pastures and dedicate them to cultivation. This led to a decrease in the economy linked to transhumance, for the shepherds it was a severe blow and many of them were forced to emigrate to other parts of the world.

Transhumance today –
Unfortunately, with the advent of modern zootechnics and intensive breeding directly on farms, the transhumance activity has greatly reduced. Nowadays it is practiced only in limited Italian areas, especially in some Alpine and pre-Alpine localities of Valle d’Aosta, Piedmont, Liguria, Italian-speaking Switzerland, the Asiago plateau, Lessinia, Trentino, Alto Adige and Carnia, in other Apennines of Molise, Abruzzo (mainly towards the Tavoliere or Agro Romano), Campania, Puglia and Lazio, as well as in Sardinia by the shepherds of Villagrande and Arzana. In Sicily it is still practiced in the Madonie area, in Geraci Siculo. The third Sunday of May is the date on which the summer pastures of the Demanio Montagna of the municipality of Geraci Siculo are made available to the flocks. The animals, coming from the various hill or plain pastures, cross the town of Geraci Siculo for an entire day to spend the summer in the mountain area.
Fortunately, for some years transhumance has become a moment of animation in the valleys thanks to the festivals, which allow you to rediscover the territory and the trades related to sheep farming. This rediscovery is particularly evident in Alsace, in the Pyrenees, in the Alps and in the Massif Central area (especially on the Aubrac plateau and in Cantal). Even the driving of the herds by road, which had been almost replaced by the transfer by truck, is making a comeback.
Transhumance was included in 2019 by UNESCO in the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which recognized the value of the practice on the basis of a transnational candidacy presented by Italy, Austria and Greece.

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