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Transhumance: a link to natural migration?

May 16, 2012

Suppose there was a seasonal migration of enormous herds of wild horses, deer, bison and other herbivores in Europe. Thousands of animals that moved from summer pastures in the mountains to sheltered valleys in winter, or from open forests and grassy steppe areas in spring to rivers and other water spots in the dry seasons.

Suppose that large carnivores like lions, leopards and wolves were following these herds. And with them human beings, our ancestors, as hunters of all these animals.

Suppose that men, once they started domesticating herbivores, were looking for ways to feed their herds. Suppose that at least some of these shepherds chose to travel with their herds to places where seasonal food was available. Why should they take a route different from the already existing natural ones?

We don’t know for sure if all this was happening in prehistoric Europe. What we do know, however, is that for millennia shepherds were travelling through the continent, following fixed routes to feed their herds in different seasons. This form of migration, called transhumance, is now disappearing in the European landscape, despite of all kinds of subsidies to save this old practice. It’s disappearing, simply because there are few young people who see themselves spending their lives with a flock of animals travelling all day and night. Their iPods tell them there is a more exciting life in the cities or along the beaches. Is this the end of the great migrations of herbivores on the European continent? Maybe, but maybe not.

Rewilding Europe is interested in the natural migration patterns of large mammals in Europe, simply because we think that this phenomenon plays an important role in structuring and connecting ecosystems. Studies, especially in Africa and North America, support this theory. How can we get evidence of it in Europe? Maybe archaeozoological research can help us.

But we can also study the possible roots of transhumance. Suppose the hypothesis above has a germ of truth in it. Then it would be very interesting to map all the known routes of transhumance in Europe as an indication where the former natural migration routes were situated.

Are there any European students who want to unravel this story? Rewilding Europe is looking for possibilities to restore the natural migration routes of large mammals, at first in our five project areas. We will therefore fully support such a study, as it could be the start of the development of these routes on our continent.

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