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Transhumance

It's a Saturday morning in suburban Spain. As you hop out of bed, you hear the ringing of bells outside your home. Bells? You glance outside your window and see a large herd of cows meandering on the street, led by a few gruff, tanned herders. A few cows stop and try to munch on the greens along the road, but the rest keep moving. Hopefully they don't run into your car!

What's going on? Where are all these cows and farmers going? More than likely, you're witnessing transhumance in action. We will overview the types of transhumance, its environmental impact, and why transhumance still remains important today.

Transhumance Definition

For many livestock farmers all over the world, the health of their animals depends in large part on transhumance.

Transhumance is the practice of herding livestock to different, geographically-distant grazing areas over the course of the year, typically in sync with the seasons.

So, how does transhumance actually play out? As summer approaches, farmers may leave their plots of land and direct their herds toward a different plot of land dozens or even hundreds of miles away, where they will stay for the season. They may travel through cities, along public roads—the easiest route that gets the animals from point A to point B. As winter encroaches, farmers will then direct their herds back to the original plot of land, where the pasture has now had some time to regenerate.

Transhumance, Transhumance Definition, Transhumance Voluntary Migration, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A transhumance migration underway in Argentina

These separate plots of lands may be privately-owned and fenced, or they may be unregulated and in direct contact with the wilderness (pastoralism—more on that later!).

Transhumance is similar to, but not the same as, rotational grazing, which is the practice of rotating livestock onto different cultivated pastures over the course of the year, usually on the same contiguous plot of land.

When practiced in conjunction with nomadism, transhumance is a form of voluntary migration. Indeed, for many who practice transhumance, nomadism is essential, and the two practices are often commingled and inseparable. However, nomadism is not strictly required to practice transhumance, and it is not uncommon for farmers to live in fixed settlements far from where their livestock are staying. The relationship between nomadism and transhumance is clarified below.

"Transhumance" is a French word, rooted in Latin; trans means across and humus means ground, ergo, "transhumance" literally means "across ground," referring to the movement of livestock and people.

Difference between Nomadic and Transhumance

Nomadism is the movement of a community from place to place. Nomadic communities either have no fixed settlements or very few. Some nomads are hunters and gatherers, but most modern nomadic communities practice pastoralism, a type of livestock agriculture in which animals are left to graze in wide open, rather than enclosed, pastures. Pastoralism almost always involves transhumance, though some pastoralists may leave their animals on the same relative area of land throughout the year and may not practice nomadism.

Put nomadism and pastoralism together and you get Pastoral Nomadism! Pastoral nomadism (also called nomadic pastoralism) is both enabled through and practiced because of pastoralism. In places where pastoralism is practiced, other forms of agriculture may be difficult or impossible, so pastoralism is the most straightforward way to stay fed. The livestock usually need to be moved to different pastures throughout the year, depending on seasonal conditions and the availability of grazing material. Many communities have found that the easiest thing to do when your food source must be moved is to simply go with them—thus, for a lot of people who practice pastoralism, a nomadic lifestyle is a given.

Technically speaking, transhumance is an element of pastoral nomadism. But transhumance can be practiced without nomadism, so the term "transhumance" carries a few implications that the term "pastoral nomadism" does not:

  • Transhumance specifically refers to the movement of livestock; the livestock owners may practice nomadism to stay with their animals or they may live in fixed settlements distant from their livestock.

  • Transhumance is usually based on seasonal movements, especially summer and winter. Nomadic pastoralism may be practiced in regions where seasonality is not a major concern, wherein the major impetus for pastoralism is the availability of grazing pasture in an area.

  • Transhumance farmers may have multiple fixed settlements (homes) for different seasons, or they may have a central home away from their herds. Nomads are usually, but not always, characterized by portable living structures like yurts.

  • Transhumance-related human migration may involve just a small group of farmers, rather than entire nomadic communities.

TranshumanceNomadismPastoralism
The practice of moving livestock to different pasturesCommunities of people moving from place to place with few or no fixed settlementsThe practice of allowing livestock to graze upon open, rather than fenced and cultivated, pastures
Farmers may stay in a central, fixed settlement away from their livestock, or they may accompany their livestock to new grazing areas. Transhumance movement can include the practice of pastoralism, or it may depend on a network of private pastures. Nomadic communities may follow the migration patterns of wild game animals or (more commonly) accompany their livestock to new grazing areas (pastoral nomadism)Pastoralism almost always includes the practice of transhumance, although some pastoralists and their livestock may instead stay in a fixed location (sedentary pastoralism)

Types of Transhumance

There are two major types of transhumance, categorized by where transhumance is being practiced. Keep in mind that transhumance is influenced mainly be seasonality and secondarily by the need to avoid overgrazing.

Vertical transhumance is practiced in mountainous or hilly regions. During the summer, animals are led to graze in higher elevations, where temperatures are slightly cooler. During the winter, animals are moved to lower elevations, where temperatures are slightly warmer. Grazing in higher elevations in the winter preserves the lower elevation pastures for the summer.

Horizontal transhumance is practiced in areas with more consistent elevation patterns (like plains or steppes), so weather and temperature differences in different areas may not be quite as pronounced as they are in mountainous regions. Transhumance farmers may have well established "sites" that they move their livestock to over the course of the year.

Transhumance Example

In Italy, transhumance (transumanza) became codified into something of an biannual ritual, with farmers following the same paths and arriving to the same regions every season.

The transhumance paths are so well-established that they've earned their own name: the tratturi, or tratturo in the singular. To prepare for winter, herders begin to travel these paths in the late fall; the journey may take a few days or it could take several weeks. But, following tradition, the destinations are almost always the same. A shepherd starting in L'Aguila, for example, will always aim to reach Foggia, with several stops along the way.

Transhumance, Transhumance Example, Tratturi, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The traturri are well-established transhumance paths in Italy

Transhumance in Italy mostly revolves around sheep, but sometimes may include cattle or goats. And here's where the voluntary migration comes in: many, if not most, of the transhumance shepherds have separate houses for summer and winter, so they can stay close to their herds. The practice of transhumance in Italy has, more recently, decreased significantly. For those who continue to practice it, many now find it easier to transport their animals via vehicle than shepherd them along the tratturi.

The Environmental Impact of Transhumance

As we mentioned earlier, many herders who practice transhumance may use public roads to get from point A to point B, sometimes even crossing through neighborhoods and cities and interrupting traffic. Depending on how much you like watching a herd of cows or goats on the move, you may find this interruption a pleasant surprise or a great nuisance! In some villages, transhumance is even associated with festivities.

Transhumance, Environmental Impact of Transhumance, Transhumance Festival, StudySmarterFig. 3 - An Italian village celebrates a transhumance migration

But all of that walking and all of that grazing can have a negative impact on the environment if not properly coordinated or managed. In other words, if too many animals pass through or end up in the same grazing area, it may exceed what local plant life can handle. Goats, sheep, and cattle in particular tend to pull up plants by the roots, and their hooves may compact the soil, making future growth more difficult.

But remember—part of the benefit of transhumance is that is can prevent overgrazing, because animals are not in an area for any longer than a season. Transhumance can be sustainable if herders coordinate grazing areas and ensure too many animals are not in one spot. If grazing lands are public rather than private, transhumance activity may be regulated by a public authority like a local government.

Importance of Transhumance

So, why is transhumance practiced?

Transhumance, as an element of pastoral nomadism, is one of the most efficient ways to maintain a food supply in areas that do not easily support other forms of agriculture. Think of the desert regions of North Africa. Hardy herds of goats can survive by browsing on dry fields of desert scrub, but growing a field of wheat or corn is nearly impossible.

However, you might be surprised to learn that transhumance is also practiced in areas that can support more sedentary animal husbandry (like Italy). The main benefits here are animal health and environmental sustainability. This is particularly true for vertical transhumance. Animals can avoid the temperature extremes of both winter and summer and can diversify their diets with new plant matter, all while their pastures are prevented from overgrazing.

Another benefit of transhumance is that it can typically support larger herds of livestock than the average sedentary livestock farm. Although industrial livestock farms can support larger herds than transhumance, living conditions for livestock are usually worse (which can lead to pollution).

Transhumance is also a cultural practice. In some places, herders have been maintaining transhumance practices for centuries, long before modern animal husbandry methods were developed. Maintaining transhumance helps contribute to a sense of local identity in an ever-globalizing world.

Transhumance - Key takeaways

  • Transhumance is the practice of herding livestock to different, geographically-distant grazing areas over the course of the year, typically in sync with the seasons.
  • Transhumance is usually (but not always) associated with a nomadic lifestyle and may include seasonal residences.
  • The main types of transhumance are vertical transhumance (practiced in mountainous regions) and horizontal transhumance (practiced in places with more consistent elevation).
  • If not properly managed, transhumance can damage the environment, especially through overgrazing. However, when properly managed, transhumance can be a sustainable form of livestock agriculture.

References

  1. Fig. 2: Tratturo-LAquila-Foggia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tratturo-LAquila-Foggia.jpg) by Pietro (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Pietro), Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 3: La Desmontegada de le Vache (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Desmontegada_de_le_Vache.jpg) by Snazzo (https://www.flickr.com/photos/snazzo/), Licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Transhumance

In Italy, farmers and their herds of sheep traverse transhumance paths (called tratturi) biannually with the changing of the seasons. 

Transhumance is practiced for a variety of reasons, including cultural tradition; efficiency relative to other forms of animal husbandry; and animal health, including herd size. 

The main cause of transhumance migration is the changing of the seasons. Animals and their herders move to avoid temperature extremes and access new grazing areas.

Transhumance is important as a practice because it is an efficient way to maintain access to food in areas that otherwise do not support many other types of agriculture. Additionally, maintaining transhumance helps contribute to a sense of local identity in an ever-globalizing world.  

The environmental impact of transhumance ranges from severe to negligible. If transhumance practices are not coordinated, herds can easily overgraze an area and kill all of the vegetation. However, if transhumance practices are properly coordinated, transhumance can be relatively sustainable. 

Final Transhumance Quiz

Question

Transhumance migration can be categorized as a form of ______ migration. 

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Answer

Voluntary.

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Question

True or False: Transhumance is synonymous with nomadism. 

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Answer

False! Transhumance is very often an element of a nomadic lifestyle. However, transhumance refers to the migration of domesticated animals, and their owners do not necessarily have to migrate with them, though they often do. 

Show question

Question

What is the difference between transhumance and rotational grazing?

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Answer

Rotational grazing usually rotates animals onto different pastures/paddocks on the same general plot of land. 

Show question

Question

This type of transhumance is practiced in mountainous regions with many changes in elevation. 

Show answer

Answer

Vertical transhumance.

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Question

This type of transhumance is practiced in regions with mostly consistent elevation. 

Show answer

Answer

Horizontal transhumance.

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Question

______ is the practice of herding livestock to different, geographically-distant grazing areas over the course of the year, typically in sync with the seasons.

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Answer

Transhumance.

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Question

The major impetus for transhumance is _________.

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Answer

The changing of the seasons. 

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Question

You and your family live in a community that subsists by following the migration patterns of wild game animals. Which of the following BEST describes this behavior? 

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Answer

Nomadism.

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Question

You and your family maintain a small herd of goats that are allowed to roam free within a few miles of your stationary home, in which you live year-round. Which of the following BEST describes this behavior?

Show answer

Answer

Pastoralism.

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Question

Each November, your family prepares to shepherd your herd of sheep around 100 miles south, where the weather is warmer. You will then stay in your winter home while your herd stays in a fenced-in pasture. Which of the following BEST describes this behavior?

Show answer

Answer

Transhumance.

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