Traditional herders are needed to safeguard biodiversity of species-rich grasslands in Central Europe

László Sáfián, Shepherd, Hajdúsámson, Hungary and Zsolt Molnár, Ethnoecologist, MTA, Hungary

People don’t see that we herders work for nature: we manage their pastures, we manage weeds, bushes and reeds. People think that all this diversity comes from nature only; they believe that these grasslands would survive without grazing. If herders go, tasty meat will go too.

Now, the wild animals have less and less space to live because people keep on entering, trespassing on their habitats. In the past, there were more beetles because there were more cowpats with dung beetles for birds to feed from. Now that in many areas grazing has been abandoned, the area has become wild. The grassland is dirty, full of litter, bushes and invasive species. Many natural areas (including government protected areas) suffer from improper or abandoned grazing.

However, things are getting better in our country. Conservation rangers would not talk to us 20 years ago. They criticised us without asking us anything. Now they stop and we can talk about pasturing and grassland management. We agree on about 90 per cent of things, so we can find good solutions. For example, we revived an old meadow management practice: we graze the meadows in early spring, so we can cut the hay later, when the European Union regulations allow it for us. And this is also good for the birds breeding on the ground.

We need to recognise each other’s knowledge. We should teach each other. Many conservationists say that our traditional herding is very much needed in protected areas because there were wild horses, wild cattle and bison many millennia ago, and these habitats need grazing to maintain their biodiversity. Others only see the overgrazed areas managed by less knowledgeable ‘herders’.

Proper grazing needs knowledgeable herders. Otherwise, livestock would only eat the good grass. Many areas still have their own herder who knows the area and what can graze where and when. Without herders, these areas would not be pasture any longer, just rough land. Sheep and cattle are inclined to overgraze some parts of the pasture.

But if a grassland is not grazed at all, it will be overgrown with weeds. Pastures would be ruined and go wild when there is no livestock on them. Thorny bushes and thistles would spread, and they must be cut by conservationists with expensive machines at high fuel prices.

Herders can also help restore these abandoned pastures. With grazing, pastures become a lot cleaner; they are refreshed. More birds go there. Wildlife has a cycle, which requires livestock. A lot of people don’t consider herders’ knowledge to be real knowledge. We did not learn from books—we inherited this knowledge, we were born into it. If people respected us a bit more, that would mean a lot.

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