Transhumance in the Alps
Transhumance in the Alps, or seasonal migration between valley and high pastures (German Almwirtschaft, Alpwirtschaft from the term for "seasonal mountain pasture", Alm, Alp) is a traditional practice that has shaped much of the landscape in the Alps, as without it, most areas below 2000 m would be forests. While tourism and industry contribute today much to Alpine economy, seasonal migration to high pastures is still practiced in Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, Italy and Switzerland, except in their most frequented tourist centers. In some places, cattle are taken care of by local farmer families who move to higher places. In others, this job is for herdsmen who are employees of the cooperative owning the pastures.
Most Alpine pastures are below 2,400 m, all are below 2,800 m. The higher regions not suitable for transhumance are known as the High Alps.
The German word Alm "seasonal mountain pasture" represents a reduced form of Alben, the original dative singular of Albe. In Alemannic German, Alp remains current. The word is originally identical to the name of the Alps itself, probably a pre-Roman (and possibly pre-Indo-European) term for "mountain". In French, the word "Alpage" shares the same meaning and etymology. Other words such as "Alpe", "Arpe", "Arpette", "Aulp", etc. are disused, but are still found in toponymy.
Evidence survives of a transhumance economy in the Alps dating to the 4th millennium BC (Neolithic Europe). Research found evidence for transhumance in the Northern Limestone Alps dating to the Late Bronze Age Halstatt culture (17th to 10th centuries BC), with pastures above the treeline at 1500 to 2100 m.
Along the edge of the alps, starting around 1300 AD in west and central Switzerland and a little later in eastern Switzerland, cattle production became the primary agricultural activity. A number of specialized cattle-markets grew up in Arona, Bellinzona, Como and Varese in the south and Villeneuve[disambiguation needed] in the west. In these communities on the edge of the Alps, transhumance included both the vertical movement of cattle to the alpine pastures as well as horizontal movement to the cattle markets. In the communities located in the central alps, the herds were more diverse. Generally there were large herds of sheep with much smaller cattle herds and other animals such as pigs and goats.
While the inhabitants of the Alps had practised transhumance for thousands of years, during the Late Middle Ages it became increasingly important as the population decreased following the Black Death and the wars of this era. Cattle production was much less manpower-intensive than farming, which was ideal with the reduced population. However, cattle production is much more capital- and especially land-intensive. Cattle production became an investment opportunity for monasteries and citizens of nearby cities. The investors would purchase the cattle and then rent the beasts out to small farmers or to herders for the summer. The smaller alpine communities generally did not want "foreign" cattle pastured in their alpine pastures, which led to conflicts between the alpine farming communities and the neighboring cities and monasteries. Conflicts over grazing rights and ownership of the alpine meadows led to several wars within what is now Switzerland, including the pivotal Battle of Morgarten (1315), which started due to a long-simmering feud between Schwyz and Einsiedeln Abbey.
Agriculture near the Alps
In the valleys along the edge of the Alps cattle production with associated transhumance was generally the rule. However, in the inner alpine valleys the climate was drier which allowed farming even at higher elevations. These areas tended to be mixed between farming and animal husbandry, with the animals being kept mainly for fertilizer and plowing rather than food.
However, in both regions the yearly movement was generally similar. Throughout the year, most of the population of the village remained on the valley floor and farmed the surrounding land for grains and hay. In the spring the herdsmen took the animals up to the middle pastures on the mountain slopes. In the summer, pigs were left in the middle pastures while the rest of the animals were moved to the high alpine pasture. At the end of September the animals were moved back to the lower pastures and cattle were stabled in the following month. Sheep and goats were stabled in December, unless the winter was mild, then they remained at the middle pastures with the pigs.
In the regions where breeding dominated, the farms were relatively large and isolated from each other. Where both breeding and farming were mixed, the plots were generally smaller and common fields were shared between the community. During the Middle Ages many fields were converted into meadows, because of the prevalence of the breeding. In the north the fields were rotated without a fallow period. They were cultivated for 2 to 5 years, then used as a meadow (and fertilized by the animals) for 3 to 10 years before going back under cultivation. However, in the mountain valleys, the fields near the communities were cultivated every year (sometimes producing two crops a year in Ticino) while the outer fields and alpine pastures were more often allowed to lie fallow or used as a meadow.
Culture and folklore
The chief shepherd in charge of the Alp and responsible for the cheese production is known as the Senn.
Transhumance contributes a great deal to traditional Alpine culture, such as Yodel, Alphorn or Schwingen. Swiss folklore also records many traditional tales about mythological creatures such as dwarves (Barbegazi, etc.) inhabiting the Alpine pastures, either helpful or causing mischief; in particular, this is to punish the cruelty or discourtesy of a bad Senn. In many cases, the stories tell about curses on specific Alps, appearances of the devil or spirits of earlier Sennen, etc.
In 1997, Austria had over 12,000 sites where 70,000 farmers take care of about 500,000 cattle. Alpine pastures amount to a quarter of the farmland.
In Switzerland, about 380,000 cattle including 130,000 milk cows as well as 200,000 sheep are in summer on high pastures. Milk from cows here is usually made into local cheese specialities, handmade using traditional methods and tools. Alpine pastures amount to 35 percent of Swiss farmland and 13 percent of the entire country. The total population of mountain farmers has decreased to about 43,000 (in 1980) from 160,000 (in 1910). The farmers that are involved in mountain farming only make up about 15% of the total farming population in Switzerland.
- History of the Alps
- Valleys of the Alps
- Animal husbandry
- Swiss folklore
- pre-Christian Alpine traditions
- AINSA - Verein für alpine Forschung (German)
- Swiss Federal Statistics Office map showing the extent of alpine pastures in Switzerland (German) (French)
- Barker, Graeme (1985). Prehistoric Farming in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 120. ISBN 0-521-22810-7. discussed "...mixed farming, mobile stock keeping, and dairying" (emphasis added) around 3500-2500 BC
- AINSA (Association for alpine research) description of alpine huts discovered in 2006 (German) accessed 2 April 2009
- Barker 114
- The Alps-Agriculture in the Middle Ages in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
- Barker 115
- Marchenstreit in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
- Swiss Federal Statistics Office (German) accessed 2 April 2009
- The Alps-Agriculture in the 19th & 20th Centuries in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.