Experiencing the 1000-year-old Alpine Sheep Trekking Tradition
(Approximately 5 min read)
At a farm-to-table Brunnenburg lunch last week, I received an invite to tag along on the students’ upcoming field trip. They said they were going to see the seasonal sheep migration and naturally, I jumped at the chance.
The Transhumance is an ancient grazing practice with a deep history in Südtirol. The name comes from the Latin trans for “across” and humus for “earth.” For thousands of years, cultures all across the world have shepherded their flocks of livestock seasonally between regions with different climates. It’s even on UNESCO’s List of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
This 1000-year phenomena can also be traced in Spain, France, Swiss, Germany and other countries; in Italy, the transhumance presents its most evolved expression in Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Campania e Basilicata.
The network of shepherd’s tracks, traced down to the pre-roman age, was further developed by Romans and connected to the network of consular routes thus making the transhumance an established, organized and protected economical activity.UNESCO
The tradition in Schnalstal Valley is the only cross-border and trans-glacial transhumance in the world. For countless generations (and over 600 years), regional shepherds have corralled their sheep more than 40 kilometers over the steep mountain pass of the Italian-Austrian Alps. They bring their flocks to pasture in the cool mountain, away from the arid heat of the valley summers. The routes have astonishingly superseded and survived changing borders and modernization. Today, we’ve driven to Vernagt Lake, to watch the sheep be persuaded to head back to their winter homes.
Our delightful guide, Robert, mostly speaks German. And now that he knows I’m a hockey player, he’s taken to playfully body checking me as we walk. We receive the historical highlights by translation via Jimmy, the archeology professor of the student-exchange program. As we park the van beside the shimmering teal reservoir, I am immediately reminded of Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.
Our sundry crew (Robert and Jimmy; Jimmy’s lovely Danish wife, Metta; and four students from the University of Minnesota – Morris) takes off uphill in the valley beneath the glacier where Ötzi the Iceman was discovered. When the Iceman was found in 1991, it provided definitive evidence that humans have been crossing these mountains for over 5,000 years. It also unveiled incredible detail about the diet, fashion, and life of people during that time. Ötzi is now housed in a museum in Bolzano. One which I’m eager to check out. (First person to visit me gets dibs!)
The hike is steep and our pace gives me ample time to take-in the surroundings. The sound of the tst-tst-tst of sprinklers, leaves rustling, and distant cow-bells are serene. Around the next bend, we see a pack of cows nibbling on grass with their traditional bells hanging from their necks. Among the scenic views, I noticed wooden drain pipes that almost look as if they had naturally formed for how well they blend into the surroundings.
Even among the tranquility of the mountainside, I’m tempted to make an SNL joke: “I gotta have more cowbell, we need more cowbell!”; but I suspect the students are too young to get the reference.
After about an hour, we settle in beside a rock to sit and wait for the sheep. I couldn’t resist the temptation to get an early peak at the herd, so while the others rested I quickly scurried off to look over the next ridge-line. Sadly, no sheep – but I did catch a glimpse of a marmot and heard its deafeningly high pitched warning call.
I jogged back to the group and dug into my lunch. Happily it included a gift from Nik the farmer: A pear, an apple, and some plums harvested fresh from Brunnenburg.
Some googling afterwards confirmed my inkling that this ancient practice was good for the land. Sure enough, several articles report that the pathways of this practice support biodiversity by linking grasslands and forests. It’s also intuitively more sustainable than intensive modern day livestock farming. While the sheep enjoy the cool fresh meadows in the Quelltal Valley by Vent (in Austria) for a few months, the bare pastures in the dry south are able to recover and vice versa when the sheep return.
Even though I don’t eat animal products anymore, if any of the culinary books and cooking shows have taught me anything, I would bet that sheep with access to wild and diverse pastures produce higher quality flavors milks and cheeses.
Slowly, we start to hear whistles and dog barks. The first few sheep start to appear over the crest just uphill from us. Then… the sheep just keep coming. A seemingly endless stream of them. Like a Dr. Suess story: white sheep, brown sheep, black sheep; scruffy sheep and poofy sheep; old sheep and young sheep. Bells around their necks jangle as they let out various different “bah” sounds. Some of which hilariously sound like a guy just saying the word “bah” with deep boredom.
As the sheep pile past us, we join them, nearly running downhill to keep up. They are encouraged along by men and women in traditional hats, holding wooden walking sticks, and their herding dogs – who take their jobs very seriously, barking anytime a sheep steps out of line.
At the base, a crowd has gathered to watch the shepherds collect their herds from the final wooden pen. There is a celebratory vibe and many of the shepherds have relieved smiles on their faces and cracked beers in hand.
In the pen, herders search for their own flock. The sheep are identifiable by colored paint marked on their backs, unique to each farm. Some of the sheep have even been decorated with flower crowns, a tradition usually bestowed on the most beautiful of the flock. When the shepherds find their sheep, they comically scoop them up in their arms like one would a toddler and deposit them into their trucks to head back to their farms.
I was so enchanted by the process that I didn’t even notice the group’s departure. Thankfully, I reconnected with them by the van. I then proceeded to fall asleep for the entire ride home. What a day!
I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.