Guarding dogs and volunteers building coexistence with large carnivores in Northern Italy
Location: Alpi Orobie – Italy,
Story by: Chiara Spallino
The Pasturs project, coordinated by Eliante, was created to build a better coexistence between human activities and large carnivores, through the use of livestock guarding dogs and the intervention of young volunteers. Pasturs is still active in the area of the Bergamo Alps, in the north of Italy.
The Orobie mountains are an area of great interest as regards the richness of species and the presence of rare or restricted fauna; in this sense, they constitute a biodiversity “hotspot”. The Orobie mountains are located within the mountainous belt at the southern edge of the central-eastern Alps, which presents important characteristics from a biogeographical point of view that have created the conditions for the presence of a high biological diversity. Here, contact between large carnivores and human activities is a real possibility, and farmers need to implement new animal management techniques and face a new source of uncertainty. Pasturs’s goal is precisely to reduce the difficulties for local livestock activities, resulting from possible incursions by large predators, thus promoting coexistence between them and humans.
Pasturs started by listening to stakeholders, shepherds for the wolf, farmers and beekeepers for the bear, to propose solutions built together with the people involved. Thanks to an anthropological and social science approach, Pasturs has chosen to take into account local cultures and how they stand in relation to phenomena such as the presence of predators. The focus of Pasturs is the adoption of livestock guardian dogs and the intervention of young volunteers, ready to educate others about good practices and information.
As is known, wolves and bears are opportunistic animals and, if they have the opportunity, they can cause damage to the farm. Effective protection of flocks significantly reduces the number of attacks by large predators. The most effective prevention measures, implemented by Pasturs through training and dissemination by volunteers, were:
- supervision by pastors
- Livestock guarding dogs
- night shelters
- electrified fences
The heart of the project is the meeting between volunteers and farmers. The former, after having been trained by experts, concretely help the shepherds in their daily activities in the mountain pastures by proposing the prevention measures and creating a climate of mutual trust that is embodied in a collaboration aimed at reducing the risks exposed. All this allows the local community of shepherds to positively differentiate their products thanks to a territorial marketing plan and allows a revival of the local economy based on environmental sustainability. In the long term, the distrust between the mountain world and the ecologist coommunity is reduced, creating an environment favorable to the continuation of traditional economic activities typical of the local community and the conservation of large predators.
Working with volunteers can help to avoid conflicts and support the idea of coexistence with large carnivores at the local level. There are many possibilities to include them: from Citizen Science approaches where citizens report sightings or traces, to volunteer observers who support monitoring activities, educational internships or joint actions for the construction of fences. Working with volunteers mobilizes additional resources and often turns them into ambassadors for coexistence. They learn a lot about the animals and the challenges and can provide their communities with relevant information. The voluntary work is also a good possibility to start an exchange between different interest groups and allows them to change perspectives.
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.
The feedback from volunteers and pastors was extremely positive. In 2019, 90% of volunteers said they wanted to participate in the experience again. The volunteers spent from 1 to 3 weeks in mountain pastures in the province of Bergamo, helping the shepherds in their work. In particular, the volunteers took care of the surveillance of the flock, of assembling and disassembling the electrified fences, they helped the shepherds in the management of the dogs, sensitized tourists on biodiversity issues as well as being of help in daily chores (cooking, lighting fire, make hay, help with the management of sick sheep, etc.). In addition, university students had the opportunity to carry out an internship and make the experience the protagonist of their degree thesis.
“Pasturs is an experience that I highly recommend. The relationship that has been established with the shepherds is very friendly and constructive and I was able to observe with what incredible passion they carry out their work “- Sara, volunteer