An ancient practice at peril
Three o’clock the morning on a moonless night, deep in a valley of the southern Italian region of Molise, a small group of livestock farmers, family and friends, a scientist and carabinieri officers stand in the light of a barn door, sipping espresso out of small plastic cups and chatting excitedly.
Inside, the barn is aswarm with 250 or so sheep, their bleats raw and desperate with anticipation.
What is about to unfold is an event, today largely overlooked, with ancient roots that has forged a vast network of passages shaping and preserving much of the landscape in this region — and, indeed, much of the world.
Transhumance — or la transumanza in Italian — is the twice-yearly, seasonal movement of animals and herders, to and from summer and winter grazing areas. Its name comes from the Latin “trans,” across, and “humus,” the earth or ground.
The practice, say pastoralists and experts, preserves precious ecosystems, linking grasslands and forests, even in areas fragmented by development and intensive farming. And its centuries-old knowledge and sustainable practices, they say, are well worth protecting.
Daniele Berlingieri, 48, weathered-face and with cigarette hanging out of his mouth, deftly moving about the barn in rubber slip-on sandals, has dedicated most of his life to being a shepherd.
Hailing from a family of herders going back generations, he sold second-hand cars for a few years in his 20s, but missed his sheep too much and the intimate connection he has with them.
“It’s the sheep who decide when to leave,” he said, of the transhumance. “They begin to get agitated a few days before with the warming weather or whatever else they sense and that’s when we know it’s time.”
Berlingieri calls out for everyone to stand back. The energy, readiness — urgency — in the air, feels like a kind of birth is about to take place. Then, he lifts off the wooden gate and the sheep gallop out.
Quickly, the baas die down as the tinkling of bells takes over. The sheep’s white, soft forms disappear along a country road, as they instinctively follow il tratturo, the well-known route the herd takes each spring, into the early dawn.
Dismissed as 'primitive'
For at least 10 millennia, sheep, goats, cows, reindeer, water buffalo and even pigs, each spring have set out with herders in search of fertile pastures, and then back again in the fall. The journey can take days or even months. It can traverse fields and forests, push through villages and towns, and climb up and over snow-covered mountain peaks.
Three years ago, UNESCO recognized transhumance in the Mediterranean and Alps as a vital element of human culture, putting it on its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The United Nations has declared 2026 the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists, which transhumance is an integral part of.
The UN recognition, say shepherds and experts, reflects a growing awareness about the value of the practice, which for several centuries was dismissed as “primitive.”
“It’s been seen as people just moving around with animals with no fixed base, an inefficient use of the land and unpredictable,” said Eugene Costello, an archeologist at Uppsala University in Sweden and lecturer in environmental history at University College Cork in Ireland.
A short drive from where Daniele Berlingieri and his sheep set out on their transhumance lies the ruins of Altilia Sepino. A half-crumbled amphitheatre, a wide main square and stone pillars jutting skyward are part of the remains of the town founded by the pre-Roman pastoralist Samnites.
“[The early] transhumance herders were barterers. They didn’t use money, but exchanged ricotta cheese for wine, or wool for knives,” said Nicola Di Niro, a rural development promoter who helped get transhumance put on UNESCO’s list.
“These early routes eventually became the dominant trade routes.”
LISTEN | Megan Williams explores transhumance with CBC Radio’s Ideas:
Shaping the world of today
After conquering the Samnites in the late third century BC, the Romans swiftly established rules to govern transhumance and tax the sheep. An AD 168 inscription forbidding townspeople from harming shepherds can still be found near the entrance gate.
“The sheep would come through this gate, they’d close it and count them, and the Romans would take their money,” said Di Niro with a chuckle, pointing to a massive archway under which a Roman road still runs.
Di Niro says the transhumance routes created a “dynamic cultural platform” along which customs, language, stories and tradition were exchanged — and one that has shaped the built environment to this day.
Early shelters along some of the major transhumance routes became hamlets, then towns, and the routes themselves, the highways and main avenues that today, cars and buses hurtle along.
When the Roman Empire conquered new lands and set up towns, it would impose a standard grid form of urban planning called the cardo e decumanus, decumanus being east-west running streets and cardo, north-south. Yet the Romans would make an exception for a transhumance passage — lining up the town’s streets with the route — so important was it to the local economy, with the wool trade and its offshoot dyeing, spinning and weaving industries.
The remaining transhumance routes provide biodiversity, laying down a wide carpet of grasses, herbs and wildflowers that provide nutrients for the animals and shield against invasive species.
“The transhumance route represents an enormous ecological platform,” Di Niro said. “And by bringing animals to the best pastures, that means they produce the best milk and meat.”
A practice at risk
Despite the UN recognition, the future of transhumance is far from secure.
In Italy, and elsewhere throughout Europe, the number of sheep and cows taking part in transhumance has shrunk from millions up until the 1950s, to just tens of thousands today.
The industrialization of livestock farming, with its economies of scale, and urban spread have made the practice both financially challenging and logistically complicated, requiring endless permits.
Selling wool was once a profitable enterprise, but with global market prices bottoming out, shepherds can’t even give it away for free. Milk and cheese, where farmers can charge more for the superior quality, are not only the main product, but usually the only one.
And climate change, with extended droughts putting pastures at risk, poses an ever-increasing danger. As do diseases.
Carmelina Colantuono is a cattle herder who produces award-winning caciocavallo, a buttery cheese fragrant with wild herbs and grasses.
She spends the summer in Molise, a mountainous, sparsely populated region, and the winter in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. Traveling between the two regions with her 300 or so mostly Podolica cows on horseback, she sleeps out in the open to keep an eye on the cattle during the week-long, almost 200-kilometre journey.
But this summer in Puglia, cases of brucellosis and tuberculosis broke out among cattle. Hers remained disease-free. But authorities banned movement of cows from one region to another, effectively cancelling the transhumance.
“They introduced a protocol that kept the animals in Puglia. But temperatures reached 40 degrees in May and the cows suffered terribly out in the open, with no shade, and dry grass. They stopped eating,” she said. “It was excruciating to witness.”
Authorities eventually permitted the cows to be transported to Molise by truck. But, in the meantime, five died from heat exhaustion and the milk production of many dried up.
This fall, another disease, epizootic hemorrhagic, has emerged on the Italian island of Sardinia, and she’s worried it will spread to the mainland and further restrict the movement of livestock.
Yet, Colantuono says she’s determined to continue with transhumance.
She and her family are part of the quarter of livestock farmers in Italy who still bring their animals to higher pasture in the summer, according to Nicola Di Niro, and of the fewer than 10 per cent who still make the journey on foot.
She is also one of few, though growing in number, women who do the transhumance in Italy.
“It was always terribly sad to see my father leave because he’d stay away with the animals for six months,” she said.
“But then, my brothers and male cousins would return, telling stories and laughing about this tough adventure, and I would think to myself, ‘If it’s so tough, why do they always come back laughing?”
She first convinced the men to let her join them as a driver, then eventually began leading.
Adapting to survive
Late morning on the sheep transhumance in Molise, the walk follows the paved country road leading to the high pasture near Roccamandolfi, a medieval mountainside town. Blankets of yellow wildflowers spread out onto green hills. Golden eagles sweep through the air and bees hover over grasses, flowers and bushes of wild herbs — thyme, oregano and wild mint.
As the sheep, shepherds and dogs head uphill, a rhythm has kicked in: a purposeful, perceptible, satisfying forward march.
Townspeople gather at crossroads; the carabinieri officers help negotiate railway tracks and bottlenecks. It’s an event: a kind of livestock Giro d’Italia, with small flashes of drama.
A sheep collapses from exhaustion — too tired to make the journey — and is hauled away on a little truck; another takes off down a pasture and is wrestled down by an out-of-breath shepherd; after a sharp turn up a rocky path, cows charge, kept at bay by a wire fence.
As we walk along, Daniele Berlingieri, a cigarette still dangling from his lips, grasps a tablet, pulling up information he shares with Veronique Ancy, a French transhumance research scientist from the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.
The tablet contains an extensive data bank of information about each and every sheep — who their parents were, when they were born, how much milk they produce. He uses the information, as well as a public data bank, to constantly improve the quality of the offspring — and milk they produce — through breeding.
It’s the 21st century version of what shepherds have always done, says Ancy.
“It’s very interesting how he manages the mid-term and long-term selection of breeds to optimize performance and security of his herd,” she said. “He’s mixing ancient practices and knowledge of landscape with technology to make it work.”
Berlingieri is also constantly honing what the sheep eat, too, to supplement the grazing.
With climate change affecting pastures and, more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine forcing up prices of animal feed, he has to adapt to survive.
WATCH | Scientist Veronique Ancy explains why transhumance is unique:
Late October, some 900 kilometres north of Molise, another transhumance takes place, this one 2,600 metres high in the Alps on the border of Italy and Austria.
In the half sunlit, snow-covered Austrian side, a long, winding single file of cows — big brown and white Pinzgauers — slowly struggle up through deep snow, bells clanging in the sharp wind.
A dozen or so men and boys, wearing colour-tinted ski glasses and Tyrolean felt hats with a feather sticking out, stomp on the snow and shovel it to clear a path for the cattle.
The cows belong to Josef Obermair.
“We slept on the pasture on the Austrian side, got up at midnight, milked the cows and then left after one in the morning,” he said. “The snow is a bit hard this year, but it’s gone well.”
His family has been making the several-day transhumance trek on this very same path since the early 1800s, a century before the Aurina — or Ahrntal in German — Valley, where his farm is located, went from being part of Austria-Hungary to Italy after the First World War.
During the wars, transhumance paths provided logistic networks. After, in the late 1940s, the one used by Obermair’s cattle became an escape route for thousands of Jewish concentration camp survivors stuck in displaced persons camps, who travelled on foot over the Krimmler-Tauern Pass into Italy and onto ships to Palestine.
Obermair, 50, began doing the transhumance when he was eight. His own son Hannes, now 11, who calls and whistles to the cows with unabashed delight, has been making the journey since he was seven, spending the summer months in the pasture in Austria.
The pleasure and pride that’s so apparent in the boys on this journey — gently leading the cattle, calling out to them, snuggling against them in the warm sunshine during a lunch break — is moving.
Letizia Bindi, an anthropologist at the University of Molise, said it reflects the unique animal-human relationship of transhumance, apart from the polar opposites seen elsewhere in the world: where on one hand, the growth of animals is accelerated for early slaughter in industrial livestock production, and on the other, certain animals, cats and dogs, are treated like children.
“Transhumance is people and animals making the same effort, both struggling together for the same objective, to reach the grassland and rest, fighting against the same weather and difficulties,” she said. “In this doing things together, another kind of relationship is developed between humans and animals.”
A relationship that is more egalitarian, she says, with animals living longer than those in the agro-industrial system, enjoying freer range, outdoor weather and a higher quality of life.
Bindi says the UN recognition of transhumance, along with a growing interest in rural tourism, where people walk along old transhumance routes, marks progress.
But she worries that its newfound status presents a newer kind of problem, something she calls “heritization,” where the memory of transhumance is being promoted by transforming it into “a poetic walk,” while not enough is being done to help the pastoralist actually trying to keep it alive.
She and others say what’s really needed is more support for the preservation of and access to pastures, with policies informed by local people who actually use the land.
They’d also like to see more financial subsidies of the kind that all farmers get in Europe, but that lend special help to pastoralists, recognizing the higher quality of their products, the contribution to the quality of life of animals and safeguarding of nature.
WATCH | The CBC’s Megan Williams shares her experience observing the practice of transhumance:
'A marvelous voyage'
After the steep descent from the mountain peak, the cows spent the night in a barn nestled into the end curve of the Aurina Valley.
Early in the morning, the herders, their wives and children haul out decorative bands and place them around the cows’ necks — and a special headdress on the lead cow — dressing them up for the final stretch of the transhumance back home: a six-hour-long parade along the valley road, drawing townspeople who watch and wave and take pictures.
At last, the cows are home, flopping on the grass behind the Obermair barn, the snow-scattered Alps peeking out behind velvety, green hills, church bells peeling.
Josef’s wife Tanja serves shots of schnapps — or grappa, in Italian — as tables beside the pasture are laid with delicious butter, cheese, bread and wine.
The scene is joyful and bucolic.
Yet it’s one that also belies the threats to the tradition of transhumance even tucked away in an Alpine valley.
Tanja Obermair is in a happy mood, with her husband and son back home and the cows nearby. But she admits, it’s a struggle to keep the transhumance tradition going.
“It’s difficult to carry on because the price we get for three litres of milk is the same industrial producers get,” she said. “That’s barely enough to pay for a caffè latte.”
To get by, they run an agriturismo where they rent out rooms and Josef works as a ski instructor in the winter months.
And in the spring, they say, Josef and Hannes and the other locals will begin the two-day trek back up the mountain to the Austrian pasture. Because they can’t imagine their lives without it.
Southern-Italian cattle herder Carmelina Colantuono feels the same way.
“Transhumance is a marvelous voyage, something almost out of time, like a fairytale,” she said.
“You travel together with the animals, in symbiosis, not leading, but following them. And the mooing of the cows! And the ringing of the bells! That ring that goes on in your head for days after. It’s wonderful.”
With special thanks to Hubert Hofer and Cindi Emond