Transhumance: Wikis


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A seter in Gudbrandsdal, Norway. It is above the tree line in the mountains and is used for summer pasture.

Transhumance is the seasonal movement of people with their livestock over relatively short distances, typically to higher pastures in summer and to lower valleys in winter. Herders have a permanent home, typically in valleys. Only the herds travel, with the people necessary to tend them. Traditional or fixed transhumance occurs or has occurred throughout the inhabited world, including Scandinavia, Scotland, Caucasus, Chad, Morocco, France, Italy, Ireland, Lebanon, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, Iran, Turkey, the Republic of Macedonia, India, Switzerland, Georgia and Lesotho. It is also practised among more nomadic Sami people of Scandinavia. It is often of high importance to pastoralist societies, the dairy products of transhumance flocks and herds (milk, butter, yogurt and cheese) often forming much of the diet of such populations.

The term "transhumance" is also occasionally used for nomadic pastoralism – migration of people and livestock over longer distances.



The term derives from the Latin trans 'across' and humus 'ground'.[1]

Worldwide transhumance patterns

Transhumance developed on every inhabited continent. Although there are substantial cultural and technological variations, underlying practices for taking advantage of remote seasonal pastures are similar.



In many hilly and mountainous areas of Scotland agricultural workers spent summer months in bothies[2] or shielings (airigh in Scottish Gaelic). Examples of major drovers' roads in the eastern part of Scotland include the Cairnamounth, Elsick Mounth and Causey Mounth. This practise has largely died out, but was practised within living memory in the Hebridean Islands and in the Highlands of Scotland. Today much transhumance is carried out by truck, with upland flocks being sent under agistment to lower-lying pasture during winter.


In most parts of Wales, farm workers and sometimes the farmer would spend the summer months at a hillside summer house or hafod (pronounced [ˈhævɔd]) where the livestock would graze. Then during the late autumn they would return down to the valleys with the farm workers staying at the main residence or hendre ([ˈheːndrɛ]).[3] This system of transhumance has not been practised for almost a century although it did continue in Snowdonia after it died out elsewhere in Wales.[4] Both "Hafod" and "Hendre" commonly survive in Wales as place names and house names. Today, cattle and sheep on many hill farms are still often transported to lowland winter pastures, but now by truck.


In Ireland the transhumance pastures were known as Booley, Boley and Boola and these names survive in placenames.

The Balkans

In the Balkans, the Sarakatsani, Aromanians and Yörüks traditionally spent summer months in the mountains and returned to lower plains in the winter. Until the mid-20th century, borders between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia were relatively unobstructed. In summer, some groups went as far north as the Balkan mountains while winter they would spend in warmer plains in vicinity of the Aegean sea. The Morlachs were a population of Vlach shepherds who lived in the Dinaric Alps (western Balkans in modern use), constantly migrating in search for better pastures for their sheep flocks. But as national states appeared in a former domain of the Ottoman empire, new state borders came to separate summer and winter habitats of many of the pastoral groups.


In Scandinavia, transhumance is still practised, although arrival of motorized vehicles has changed its character. Common mountain or forest pasture used for transhumance in summer is called seter or bod / bua. The same term is used for a mountain cabin which was used as a summer residence. In summer (usually late June), livestock is moved to a mountain farm, often quite distant from a home farm, preserving meadows in valleys for use as hay. Livestock were typically tended for summer by girls and younger women, who milked and made cheese. Bulls usually remain at the home farm. As autumn approaches, once grazing is in short supply, livestock are returned to a home farm.

In Sweden, this system was predominantly used in Värmland, Dalarna, Härjedalen, Jämtland, Hälsingland, Medelpad and Ångermanland.

It was common to most regions in Norway due to its highly mountainous nature. "The Gudbrandsdal area includes lateral valleys such as Gausdal, Heidal, Vinstradal, and Ottadal. That area comprises lowland parishes 200 m above sea-level and mountain parishes 800 m above sea-level, fertile soil in the main valley and barren summits in Rondane and Dovrefjell. Forests surround those farms, but higher up, woods give way to a treeless mountain plateau. This is the seterfjell, or summer farm region, once of vital importance both as summer pastureland and for haymaking.”[5]

While previously many farms had their own seter, today it is more usual for several farmers to share a modernized common seter (fellesseter). Most of those old seters have been left to decay or are used as cabins.

The name for the common mountain pasture in most Scandinavian languages derives from the old Norse term setr. In (Norwegian) the term is sæter or seter, in (Swedish) säter. The place name appears in Sweden in several forms Säter and Sätra and as a suffix: -säter, -sätra, -sätt and -sättra. Those names appear extensively over Sweden with a centre in the Mälaren basin and in Östergötland.

In the heartland of the Swedish transhumance region the most used term is bod or bua (the word still existing in English as booth), nowadays standarized to fäbod.

The Iberian Peninsula

Many southern open fields in Andalusia did create or refined based on ancient traditions as classic roman references and archaeological findings show [1], the rich horse and cattle herding of free range that later would be brought to the Americas and would especialize as Gaucho and Cowboys practices altogether with a rich social culture of their own with stockbreeding mainly for meat,leather rather than milk,though this may not be totally unexploited. The pig and sheep exploitation of large herds in transhumant style and through well defined and prehistoric migratory routes for animals,was long established by highly regulated laws in recorded documents of the Mesta since the early middle ages and was well known abroad,where England and Flanders held interests in the wool trade related.It may have a longer history based in classical methods developed through an earlier politically and legally unified peninsula during the lower Roman Empire.Some visigothic records show these were still so. In some Pyrenees and Cantabrian Mountains high valleys,transhumant herding have been the basic or only support of their economy and equally regulated passes and pasturage have been especialized between different valleys and communities,due to the seasonal range of exploitation and communities jurisdictions.Some have created unique social groups more or less dedicated to this transhumant lifestyle,or are a remnant of a much older ethnic culture now left in isolated minorities as the "Pasiegos" in Cantabria , "Agotes" in Navarre ,"Vaqueiros de alzada" in Asturias.

Moving sheep up along a road in the Massif Central, France

The Pyrenees

Transhumance in the Pyrenees involves relocation of livestock (cows, sheep, horses) to high mountains for summer months, because farms in the lowland are too small to support a larger herd all year round. Their mountain period starts in late May and early June, and ends in early October. Until the 1970s transhumance concerned mainly dairy cows, and cheesemaking was important activity. In some regions up until this century, nearly all members of a family decamped to higher mountains with their cows, living in rudimentary stone cabins. That system, which evolved during the Middle Ages, lasted into the 20th century, but broke down under pressure from industrialization with concomitant depopulation of countryside.

The Alps

The traditional economy of the Alps was based on rearing cattle. Seasonal migration between valley and high pastures was critical in feeding an increased number of cattle and supporting a higher human population. That practice has shaped a lot of 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 practised in Bavaria, Austria 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 employed by the cooperative owning the pastures.

Austria has over 12 000 sites where 70 000 farmers take care of about 500 000 cattle. Alpine pastures amount to a quarter of the farmland.

Bavaria has about 1400 sites hosting 50 000 cattle, about half of them in Upper Bavaria and the other half in the Allgäu.

In Switzerland, about 380 000 cattle including 130 000 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% of Swiss farmland. Transhumance contributes much to traditional Swiss culture, for example yodeling, alphorn and Schwingen (wrestling) are closely connected to Alpine pastures.


In southern England, where the climate is mild and the hills low, transhumance historically took the opposite form to that in Switzerland. Cattle grazed on dry, sandy heath on the hills in winter and rich, low-lying flood-meadows in summer once flood-water receded. The Weald, as another example, was utilised for the grazing of pigs; this type was known as pannage. While this form of pastoralism sees little use today, it has left its mark on English toponymy, as attested by nearby paired placenames such as Winterfold Heath and Somersbury Wood.[6]


Traditional economy of the Basotho in Lesotho is based on rearing cattle. Seasonal migration between valley and high plateaus of the Maloti (basalt mountains of Lesotho) is critical in feeding an increased number of cattle and supporting a higher human population. Pressure on pasture land has increased due to construction of large storage dams in these mountains to provide water to South Africa's arid industrial heartland.

While tourism is starting to contribute to the economy of Lesotho, and more people are moving permanently into Highlands there, seasonal migration still augments this trend. Seasonal migration is part of the job of herdsmen who are employees of farmers who own herds in Lesotho. Growing pressure on pastures is contributing to degradation of sensitive grasslands and could contribute to sedimentation in man-made lakes.


Examples of fixed transhumance are found in the North Governorate of Lebanon. Towns and villages located in the Qadisha valley are at an average altitude of 1,400 meters. Some settlements, like Ehden and Kfarsghab, are used during summer periods from beginning of June till mid-October. Inhabitants move in October to coastal towns situated at an average of 200 meters above sea level. The transhumance is motivated by agricultural activities ( historically by the mulberry silkworm culture). The main crops in the coastal towns are olive, grape and citrus. For the mountain towns, the crops are summer fruits, mainly apples and pears. Other examples of transhumance exist in Lebanon.

North and northeast Africa

The Berber people of North Africa were traditionally farmers, living in mountains relatively close to the Mediterranean coast, or oasis dwellers. However, the Tuareg and Zenaga of the southern Sahara practice nomadic transhumance, whereas some groups, such as the Chaouis, practiced fixed transhumance. The Somalis and the Afars of Northeast Africa likewise traditionally practice nomadic transhumance.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Maasai are semi-nomadic people located primarily in Kenya and northern Tanzania who have pastoral transhumance cultures that revolve around their cattle. That dependence was historically very strong, with even huts of the Maasai built from dried cattle dung. They are related to the Zulu, a people who live mainly in South Africa who were also formerly semi-nomadic.

North America

Transhumance, relying on use of public land, continues to be an important source of livestock feed in the western United States. The American tradition was based around moving herds to higher ground with the improvement in highland pastures in spring and summer. It was based on a semi-nomadic cowboy or the nomadic shepherd who often traveled with a herd. The motion picture Brokeback Mountain portrays this lifestyle in the first act of the story, in which the shepherds take their sheep into BLM lands.

The Mexican charro, is a continuation of this tradition to the south.

In the southern Appalachians, livestock, especially sheep, were often pastured on grassy bald mountain tops where wild oats predominate. There is some speculation that these balds are remnants of ancient bison grazing lands (possibly maintained to some extent by early Amerindians). In the absence of transhumance, these balds have been receding in recent decades and may require some form of transhumance to conserve these unique ecosystems.

South America

South American transhumance relies on "cowboy" counterparts, the gaucho of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and (with the spelling "gaúcho") southern Brazil, the llanero of Venezuela, the huaso of Chile.


Transhumance practices are found in temperate areas, above ~1000 m in the HimalayaHindu Kush area (referred to below as Himalaya); and the cold semi-arid zone north of the Himalaya, through the Tibetan Plateau and northern China to the Eurasian Steppe.

Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan all have vestigial transhumance cultures. For regions of the Himalaya transhumance still provides mainstay for several near-subsistence economies — for example, that of Zanskar in northwest India, Van Gujjars in Western Himalayas, and Kham Magar in western Nepal, although in some cases distances may be great enough to qualify as nomadic pastoralism.

Another example of this way of life is the Bakhtiari tribe of Iran. All along the Zagros mountain range from Azerbaijan to the Arabian Sea, pastoral tribes move back and forth with their herds every year between their home in the valley and one in the foothills."[7]

The Qashqai - the story of a Turkic tribe of southern Iran

"To survive, nomads have always been obliged to fight. They lead a wandering life and do not accumulate documents and archives. But in the evenings, around fires that are burning low, the elders will relate striking events, deeds of valour in which the tribes pride themselves. Thus the epic tale is told from father to son, down through the ages. The tribes of Central Asia were forced by wars, strife, upheavals, to abandon their steppes and seek new pasture grounds . . . so the Huns, the Visigoths, and before them the Aryans, had invaded India, Iran, Europe. The Turks, forsaking the regions where they had dwelt for centuries, started moving down through the Turan and Caspian depressions, establishing themselves eventually on the frontiers of the Iranian Empire and in Asia Minor. We are of Turkish language and race; some say that we are descendants of the Turkish Ghuzz Tribe, known for its cruelty and fierceness, and that our name is derived from the Turkish "Kashka" meaning "a horse with a white star on its forehead". Others think this name indicates that we came from Kashgar in the wake of Hulagu. Others still that it means "fugitive". Though these versions differ, we believe that the arrival of our Tribes in Iran coincided with the conquests of Jengis Khan, in the thirteenth century. Soon after, our ancestors established themselves on the slopes of the Caucasus. We are descendants of the "Tribe of the Ak Koyunlu" the "Tribe of the White Sheep" famed for being the only tribe in history capable of inflicting a defeat on Tamerlane. For centuries we dwelt on the lands surrounding Ardebil, but, in the first half of the sixteenth century we settled in southern Persia, Shah Ismail having asked our warriors to defend this part of the country against the intrusions of the Portuguese. Thus, our Tribes came to the Province of Fars, near the Persian Gulf, and are still only separated from it by a ridge of mountains, the Makran. The yearly migrations of the Kashkai, seeking fresh pastures, drive them from the south to the north, where they move to their summer quarters "Yeilak" in the high mountains; and from the north to the south, to their winter quarters, "Qishlaq". In summer, the Kashkai flocks graze on the slopes of the Kuh-è-Dinar; a group of mountains from 12,000 to 15,000 feet, that are part of the Zagros chain. In autumn the Kashkai break camp, and by stages leave the highlands. They winter in the warmer regions near Firuzabad, Kazerun, Jerrè, Farashband, on the banks of the river Mound, till, in April, they start once more on their yearly trek. The migration is organised and controlled by the Kashkai Chief. The Tribes carefully avoid villages and towns such as Shiraz and Isfahan, lest their flocks, estimated at seven million head, might cause serious damage. The annual migration is the largest of any Persian tribe. It is difficult to give exact statistics, but we believe that the Tribes now number 400,000 men, women and children." Told to Marie-Tèrése Ullens de Schooten by the 'Il Begh' Malek Mansur, brother of the 'Il Khan', Nasser Khan, Chief of the Kashkai Tribes, in 1953.[8]


In Kyrgyzstan, transhumance practices, which never died out during the Soviet period, have undergone a resurgence in the difficult economic times following independence in 1991. Transhumance is integral to Kyrgyz national culture. Felt tents used on these summer pastures (or jailoo) is known as the yurt and its main structural component is symbolised on their national flag. Those shepherds prize fermented mare's milk drink kumis; a tool used in its production lends its name to the country's capital city, Bishkek.


In Australia, which has a large ranch (station) culture, stockmen provide the labor to move the herds to seasonal pastures.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "T. Pennant Tour in Scotland 1769: "Bothay, a dairy-house, where Highland shepherds, or graziers, live during summer with their herds and flocks, and during that season make butter and cheese.", Dictionary of the Scots Language, accessed 26 May 2007
  3. ^
  4. ^ history of hafod elwy hall
  5. ^ *Erling Welle-Strand, Adventure Roads in Norway, Nortrabooks, 1996. ISBN 82-90103-71-9
  6. ^ Smith, Gavin (2005). Surrey Place-names. Heart of Albion Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 1-872883-84-2.  
  7. ^ Rouhollah Ramazani, The Northern Tie. Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. D. Van Nostrand Company: New Jersey, 1966, p. 85
  8. ^ Ullens de Schooten, Marie-Tèrése. (1956). Lords of the Mountains: Southern Persia & the Kashkai Tribe. Chatto and Windus Ltd. Reprint: The Travel Book Club. London, pp. 53-54. See also pp. 114-118.

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