Multiple Bosses

In early July I visited the Varaita Valley of the Italian Alps, in the Piedmont region, on the border with France. Some days earlier I had met a resident of the valley, Denis, who shepherds his own flocks in the area, grazing them on the beautiful mountain slopes overlooking the massive Viso peak (3.841m). The area has recently come under the administration of the Viso National Park, and the forces of land abandonment and predator come-back (here in the guise of the wolf) that are familiar throughout Europe are present here as well. I spent a day with Denis, taking a group of cattle form one grazing area to another, and talked about what it means to live the life of a shepherd in today’s rural Europe.

Monte Viso

Having both wolves and shepherds on the same mountain is like having two bosses in one office, says Denis when I ask him about the conflict with the newly returned predator. The wolf was exterminated from the area around the turn of the last century, but has returned in the last 15 years. The forces behind its return are familiar ones: the abandonment of agricultural land and the subsequent freeing up of spaces where it was previously persecuted. However, this picture of land abandonment and predator come-back paints the situation in simple terms, making it seem as if the change in land use and species composition is a natural occurrence, naturally devoid of conflict. If only those stubborn enough to still live in the mountains would just leave or accept their four-legged neighbours, everything would be ok.

The reality is much more complicated. As elsewhere in Europe, abandonment is relative and should really be characterized as changing land-use. For example, the pastures of the Viso area are dotted with old mountain houses (baite) made of stone and some timber. These were traditionally used in the summer. Now, with the rare exception of a high altitude vacation home, they are all abandoned. However, the land that they are on is not. On the transhumance with Denis we saw about a dozen of them, all abandoned and in various states of decay, but the land we were passing through is actively used by shepherds (not to mention hikers and scientists and park officials, but that is a different story). To understand why the baite are abandoned while the land surrounding them is not we have to understand the role they once played in the local economy, and the fact that they are useless for the current economic model.

When Denis’ grandparents led flocks through the mountains, they made use of this network of houses because hay used to be gathered high up on the slopes. This being a time-consuming and labor-intensive activity, in an era with no mechanized ways of doing the job (tractors for example), the houses were worth maintaining for the service they provided: easier access to hay. The land adjacent to the village, down in the valley, was then used to grow cereal crops in the short summer months, in order to make flour that would last through the winter. The wood-burning ovens of the village or of private owners (the wealthier ones) would then bake bread with locally grown grains; the villagers would eat meat and cheese grown by them, and largely survive out of their own toil. In other words, the economy in which maintaining the baite made sense was a largely cashless, subsistence one. This economy also meant that there were many more people inhabiting the mountains, but each one had far fewer animals. These were not raised to be sold for cash, but rather to survive the mountains. As such, it did not make sense to have hundreds of cattle per person; a dozen or so would suffice.

Today, hay is gathered around the village, down in the valley, because it is the easiest place to access with mechanized means and the land is no longer needed for growing cereals. Flour is bought, like most other things the villagers need. And though there are far fewer people living in the mountains, there are many more domestic animals (Denis himself has 250 cattle), because these are grown to be sold to large-scale meat producers. In this context, spending resources to fix up a baita is useless, and therefore is never done. The land looks as if it is no longer used by humans, but the reality is that it is used in a completely different way, largely because of economic reasons. Where there used to be thousands living in the mountains, now there are barely hundreds year-round, with many more animals, and the population explodes for three months a year (in the tens of thousands) when tourists, like myself, come to visit.

cows and sunshine
Piedmontese cattle being led through narrow mountain paths

The previously prevailing land-use pattern, of small holders living fully autonomously from what the mountain could sustain, was highly inimical to predators. In a context of scarcity and overall subsistence living, a predator was a grave threat and the dominant human response throughout the ages has been its elimination. The current land-use pattern allows for greater predator numbers for several reasons: people can’t legally shoot them, and there are far fewer people to persecute them illegally. Furthermore, the domestic animals wolves take are no longer subsistence animals, but rather cash-generating assets. The loss of an animal is now part of the cost of doing business as opposed to a potentially mortal threat. The wolf is more tolerable under the current economic model, though the shepherd’s life not necessarily so.

The lives of wolves are as regulated nowadays as the lives of locals. Since the pastures around the Viso have become a park new rules apply to where cattle can be grazed and when. And killing a wolf, under any circumstance, is illegal. The locals I spoke with saw this as anomalous: they understood that the wolf is protected because people that live elsewhere want it to be (and those people count more, because they represent more votes), but they did not understand why they cannot defend themselves with lethal means against attack. If a wolf is after their animals, they saw it as good sense to be able to shoot at the predator. In fact, they wanted the state to really act like the wolf is part of the cost of doing business and allow the locals to protect themselves on their own territories. As things stand, the state operates schemes for compensation that don’t really get to the heart of the problem: two bosses in one office.

Throughout the historical changes in land-use, locals have kept a strong mountain identity. They are independent, stubborn, strong folks. Only the mountain itself is stronger – in the animal kingdom, they are supreme. The wolf unsettles this picture, because it is such a gifted predator and intelligent adversary. Saying that there are two bosses in the mountains recognizes the wolf as an equal, and we spoke much about the amazing abilities of this animal and the hidden admiration that locals have for it. Though they wished it away, they knew that it is here to stay and that they will have to learn to live with it. Learning to live with the wolf is accepting a certain number of losses and accepting that there is another force in the mountains capable of challenging your own. This is easier said than done, and it will be a long time before the wolf will also be welcome in the places that it is now colonizing.

The economic forces that have created the conditions for the wolf’s return are also creating conditions for high levels of resentment among the local population. We might think that compensation schemes get to the heart of the problem, but receiving 150 euros for one animal does not address the psychological aspects of loosing that animal or the fact that the price of meat is not what an animal costs. To the shepherd, an animal is a long-term investment and an emotional attachment. He sees himself as having the right, given by a history of land-use, to raise animals in that environment, and knows them individually and cares for them deeply.

The state is perceived as primarily defending tourists and the interests of national parks, and its schemes do not take into account the ways in which the wolf, and the locals, struggle to fit in the new economic models defining the mountains. Though the possibility of resolving age-old conflicts like those between shepherds and wolves is remote, it seems worthwhile to try different approaches. The easiest thing to do is for legislators to simply visit the communities affected by their decisions, and listen. Walking around with people like Denis they might get a sense of the ecological and cultural richness of the mountains and of what counts to people living in that context. In the absence of real dialogue, the current predator come-back throughout Europe will probably just be an anomaly in an otherwise persistent trend of diminishing wildlife.

cows and mountains
Transhumance in the Varaita Valley

1 Comment

  1. Just back from the Val di Non (Trentino), and heard very similar comments (there, more on bears than on wolves). There is also the same logic, of feeling that wild life is introduced by ignorant outsiders (there the Greens are blamed, although it was in fact the provincial authorities with centrist leanings who approved the reintroduction of bears). When I was there, a elderly person had just been attacked by a bear, certainly not helping things (although a local did observe that the only real incidents that ever took place is with people accompanied by dogs who bark aggressively towards bears). But many forest walkers these days take little bells with them, hoping the noise will make the bears go away.


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