About shepherds in the plains
Location: Flatz – Austria,
Story by: Stefan Knöpfer
Our philosophy is: You don’t need to reinvent the wheel! The managed herd on diverse land represents the optimum of livestock farming. We need neither vermicides nor veterinarians. They are only used in case of injuries. We also let the animals lamb on the pasture, and in the case of a hard winter we keep them in an open stable. We mainly use old breeds that cope well with weather and parasite pressure. Small farms in particular can never compete with the big ones, and that’s where the advantages of rotational grazing with shepherding and/or small paddocks or even transhumance lie. Not least through the selling of high quality products.
As a child in the early 90s, I was able to experience the fascination of the managed sheep herd. At that time it was the last shepherd in Schwechat/Lower Austria who grazed the remaining grassland with his sheep, mostly along the railway embankments. Again and again I met the old man with his forest sheep and the connection between man and animal was noticeable.
In 1993, the shepherd whose name I never learned disappeared overnight and with him the last wandering herd in this area.
The loss of this precious way of life still affects me today. So much so that, together with a few like-minded people, I founded the association “HIRTENKULTUR” in 2020.
It is not about travelling back to feudal times and living wild romantic daydreams! Rather, the synergy of farm animals, ecosystems, biodiversity and cultural assets should be preserved and revived before this way of keeping animals disappears from the Eastern Austrian landscape forever.
Examples from other cultural areas show that the longer something has been lost, the more difficult it is to recover and reintroduce it. Finally, with the loss of the migrating herds, the knowledge about them is also lost.
When one thinks of pastoralism and grazing, it is often anchored in people’s minds in connection with the Alpine region. Only the ancients still remember the common pastures, the Trifft and the Hoider am Roa, which were still common until the 1950s. Several place names bear witness to this.
This way of cultivating grassland created the species today.
The species spectrum of grassland emerged with the large meadows and grassland farming in the Neolithic Revolution of 6000 BC and represented the land use system in Central Europe until 1800.
All our conservation efforts are based on preserving what agriculture created over the last millennia.
The disappearance of the “old” pasture and hay use in the traditional sense is now putting a number of species under pressure and will probably ensure that a large part of this diversity disappears in the near future.
My path as an animal keeper in the various institutions showed me early on that an intact ecosystem is the only thing that keeps us humans and all other living creatures a planet worth living on. If this system collapses, all the modern achievements cannot save us.
A few years later, the decision matured to build up a herd of goats, accompanied by horses, to graze the areas that are no longer profitable for conventional agriculture and thus create oases of species. These mosaics now serve as “retreats” for species that are being displaced on intensively used land and form starting areas for new colonisation by these species.
Active pasture management with shepherd and dog is a basic philosophy. Of course, we also use mobile fences to create short-term extensive pasture, but we move a lot with the animals and sometimes bring them home to the stable every day. The greatest distances are 2km each way. To graze for several days even further.
Working with the dog is essential in this way of keeping grazing animals. As in the past, the dog is the best companion to guide herds from A to B safely. One has to bear in mind that we do not have large contiguous areas like in the Alps, but use areas cut up by roads and villages. This “labyrinth” does not make moving a herd easy in modern times. This is where technology comes in. GPS, photo traps and good fences as well as communication technology make everyday herding easier.
Livestock protection is automatically provided by our frequent presence.
Our philosophy is: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel! The shepherded herd on diverse land represents the optimum of livestock management. We do not need vermins or veterinarians. They are only used in case of injuries. We also do our lambing in the pasture, and in the open stable during hard winters. We mainly use old breeds that cope well with weather and parasite pressure. Small farms in particular can never compete with the big ones, and that’s where the advantages of rotational grazing with herding and/or small paddocks or even transhumance lie. Not least through the selling of high quality products.
Livestock Guarding Dogs
Livestock guarding dogs defend the herd against attacks by wolves. They feel like part of the herd and settle down with the pet owner. The dogs live permanently outside and defend “their” herd against all intruders from the outside. Well-trained livestock protection dogs are no danger to walkers and hikers, but these should lead their dogs on a leash. To make this work, well trained herd protection dogs are required, which are adapted to the type of grazing by the livestock. This requires regular checks made by experienced people so that the dogs do not start to behave incorrectly.
My wish and hope for the future is not only a diverse nature but also a diverse agriculture with healthy and valuable food. In my opinion, these two aspects must go hand in hand.