Ecological importance of pastoralism

Pastoralism is practised over large areas of the world, and produces mosaics of temporally and spatially varying vegetation composition and structure in semi-natural grasslands. These mosaics provide many niches and can therefore accommodate butterfly species with contrasting habitat requirements, both within their own life cycle and with other species. For example, an indication off the biodiversity at present maintained by pastoralism in Europe is the approximately two million hectares of semi-natural grasslands (pastures and hay meadows) in Romania’s mountains. These grasslands are termed semi-natural because they have been subjected to a long history of pastoral management. Both Ovid and Aristotle described transhumance (seasonal movements of livestock) to and from the Romanian Carpathians indicating that there have been semi-natural grasslands in these mountains for at least 2000 years. Romania’'s semi-natural grasslands are remarkable in Europe for their sheer scale and because of the numbers of species that they support. They can be contrasted with the relatively small areas amounting at the most to a few hundred hectares that have survived the impact of intensive agriculture in the United Kingdom.

Nomadic Pastoralism

Nomadic pastoralists are populations who raise livestock and are somewhat mobile, although there is a broad continuum within these activities that varies from population to population . Indeed, the flexibility and adaptability of the nomadic lifestyle is one of its most important attributes. There are nomadic herding pastoralists in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and nomadic tradespeople such as the Roma or Travellers of Eurasia, as well as nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The word “nomad” has often carried a connotation of aimless wandering: Humphrey and Sneath, in their 2005 survey of pastoralism in inner Asia, named their book 'The End of Nomadism', in protest of this very term. Often, researchers prefer the use of “mobile pastoralism” or simply “pastoralism” to refer to this particular lifestyle. Though each nomadic culture is different, all nomadic pastoralists share subsistence and cultural patterns, such as communal use of pasture lands and the managing of family livestock herds.

Explanations of the origins of nomadic pastoralism range from ecological to political, but whatever the case may be, nomadic and sedentary societies have always been closely tied through trade and cultural influence. Nomads often inhabit lands that are incapable of supporting agriculture, including savannas, dry highlands, and tundra. Because of this, some describe agriculture and pastoralism as two complementary, variably interdependent activities that evolved to inhabit different ecological niches, possibly because of climatic drying in some areas. They refer to the relationship between nomadic and sedentary societies as an “ecological symbiosis”: depending on the status of trade and land use/dispute, this relationship can be “competitive,” “symbiotic,” or “predator-prey.” The reality is that nomadic pastoralism is almost never a “closed system,” completely independent from other societies; nomads have always gained diverse foods, such as cereals and vegetables, from sedentary groups. Pastoralism has been described as “intermittent and extensive use of land,” with population densities similar to some foraging or gatherer groups, estimated at 0.8-2.2 people/km in East Africa. The outside “energy input” from trading and other interactions with sedentary groups and in the past this has helped to sustain nomadism and prevent overgrazing by nomadic herds.

This interdependence functions in both directions, with sedentary societies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East gaining technologies and even fashion trends from their nomadic counterparts, as well as trading a large proportion of their milk and meat products. Nomads have had an irrefutably large impact on regional politics for thousands of years: the Mongols, for example, shaped history in Asia and Europe for centuries. Going beyond simply interdependence, the two identities—nomad and sedentary—are historically mutable and flexible: This has been referred to refer to as a “nomadic-sedentary continuum.” Pastoralism is often placed on an intractable socio-evolutionary timeline on which movement from a mobile to a sedentary lifestyle is inevitable as societies optimize their subsistence and production. However; depending on time, place and politics,, nomads may practice some degree of sedentary agriculture, and sedentary groups may adopt mobile pastoralism. This has occurred even in recent years, as in Mongolia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s due to difficult economic situations in its northwestern region. Thus, there is both a historical and contemporary link between sedentary and nomadic lifestyles.

English Uplands

The English uplands face two significant challenges, both of which are common to marginal farming areas across the EU, as Nori and Gemini (2011) outline in relation to the more recent reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Firstly, farming incomes are low, and heavily dependent upon the support provided by the CAP. The second major challenge is to halt the environmental decline. In environmental terms, the English uplands have suffered declines in the extent and quality of important habitats and species since the 1940s, and particularly in the decades between 1970 and 2000.

Chalk Downland

Chalk grassland is a widespread habitat on the north and south downs of southern England. It is rich in colourful flowering plants and insect life. For example, the beautiful and rare pasque flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris, which grows in Britain's chalk grasslands. The flower, which usually blooms in time for Easter each year, has shrunk in population and now only occurs in 19 sites across England. Traditionally, chalk grasslands have been managed by sheep grazing. You can see track-ways eroded into the hillsides that provide evidence of the routes taken by animals over many decades.

Lowland chalk grassland is confined to the North and South Downs in southern England, from Kent through to Wiltshire and Dorset, with most remaining areas found on escarpments and dry valley slopes. The harsh environmental conditions found on chalk include summer heat and drought, winter frosts and poor soil nutrient status. Together with regular grazing, these prevent any individual species from reaching its full potential. The result is a very diverse habitat where no single species can out-compete the others.

Ancient chalk grassland, which has not been improved by the addition of artificial fertiliser, can be incredibly rich in plant life, supporting up to 40 species per square metre. Plants include cowslip (Primula verris), kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), quaking grass (Briza media) and sheep's fescue (Festuca rubra) as well as many species of orchid. These include fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea), bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) and the pink pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis).

Chalk grasslands are rich in insect life, including a number of butterflies and moths associated solely with this habitat. A walk in summer will see the grassland alive with the iridescent blue of an Adonis blue and the brown and orange of the gatekeeper butterflies. The sound of a number of different cricket and grasshopper species can be heard during the summer months.

As with meadows and traditional pastures, the extent and quality of chalk grassland has declined since the 1940s as more intensive methods of agriculture have been used. Large areas of chalk grassland have also been lost because of urban development and extensive road building, especially in the south east. There are no precise figures but surveys of a sample of chalk grasslands showed a loss of 20% between 1966 and 1980.

Chalk grassland has also suffered from lack of grazing which alters the composition of the grassland and can allow scrub to take over. Over-grazing can also be a problem. Traditionally, chalk grasslands have been managed by sheep grazing. Sheep are the ideal animals to manage chalk grasslands since they graze the sward between the flower stalks leaving the nectar sources for the insects and the seeds for future years. Some of the remaining chalk grassland sites are now under conservation management. Scrub has been cut back and grazing management restored.

Grazing livestock and pastoralism

Butterflies as indicators of biodiversity

Butterflies are widely regarded as sensitive indicators of the environment and have been used to assess factors ranging from climate change and land use policies. Trends in numbers on individual sites can be used to assess the impact of land management and make improvements to maximise benefits to biodiversity. Finally, habitat loss due to human activities has had a devastating impact on the viability of butterfly populations and monitoring can help assess overall conservation effort aimed at reversing these downward trends.

Pastoralism as conservation



Educational Context