Alpine grazing

The century-old practice of Alpine grazing means cattle farming with herds at high elevations.

It mainly owes its origin to agricultural, economic and practical reasons.

In the Alps and Pre-alps the livestock, particularly cattle, was the main source of income, therefore the greater the number of heads that could be maintained, the greater the livelihood opportunities for a family.

Tightly linked to the economic aspect are haymaking operations which, in the villages of mountain valleys, lasted from June to September and occupied people from dawn to dusk.

At the same time, a stable with animals to tend to required a strenuous daily commitment, to the detriment of haymaking. It is evident that, by sending the cattle to graze on the mountains, farmers could spend more hours producing hay in the amount needed to maintain their animals when they went back to their stables at the end of the season.

Even considering the vast social changes of the last few decades, the basic reasons for the origins of transhumance still apply, although we are no longer talking about small family farms, but of larger livestock production units that are managed according to the latest management techniques.

The Alpine farm

From the 13th of June – the feast of St. Anthony – to the 8th of September – the Nativity of the Virgin Mary – the uplands fill up with cows, sheep and goats who discreetly live side by side with the typical frequenters of Alpine pastures, such as chamois, roe deer, deer, hares and groundhogs, to name just the most famous. Let’s now make our way to the Alpine farm, that summer residence which some children called “the summer house of cows”.

We define the Alpine farm as the assembly of four elements: the pasture “passon”, the drinking trough “aip” or “poce da l’aghe”, the barn “loze” and the dairy hut, “casere”.

Of the four, pastures and water are the most important, since the width, location and quality of the grass of the former and the crucial availability of the latter are fundamental for the cattle to “stay” here, for their numbers and the quality of their lives. Herd shelters – “las lozes” in Friulian – are brickwork buildings whose roofs were once covered with slabs of larch wood – the “scjandules” – and hatched in the sloping direction.

The “casere" is a brickwork building resembling a normal house built near the stables, often closing a circle or another geometric shape according to the soil structure.

A traditional dairy hut is an austere building with the bare essentials for living and for milk processing.

At the ground floor there are two rooms: one used as a kitchen/accommodation for the farmer and for the full milk-processing cycle, the other, smaller room is used for ripening the “celâr” cheese. The floor is made of stone and at the centre is an open-flame hearth that allows smoking ricotta cheese loaves placed over a grill, the “secjarole”. There is no ceiling and the smoke leaks from the special rise in the ridge beam of the roof.

The staircase built in a corner leads to the upper floor where the wooden attic over the cheese ripening room includes a garret for sleeping over.

Nowadays almost all these buildings have been renovated, made more functional and meeting the current hygiene regulations.

A bit of history

As all over the Alps, on the Alps and Pre-Alps of Friuli Venezia Giulia mountain grazing has a century-old history with atavistic rhythms, timing and customs.

There is precise evidence of transhumance dating back to the time of the Patriarchate of Aquileia (1077-1420). Particularly significant is the concession made in 1275 by the Patriarch Raimondo della Torre to the population of Carnia, who allowed them to reclaim lands previously used as meadow and pastures after paying a “tithe”.

The most fertile areas were reclaimed to try meeting the growing feeding needs of the population. The resulting loss of plots of land drove farmers to search for alternative pastures, causing the expansion of those in upland areas by clearing woodland. In mid-high mountain lands barns – the so-called “stâi” – were built in order to accommodate the cattle in the summer: it climbed up there in June and fed on the meadows removed from the village, while the forage fields in valley floors were scythed to create the hay reserve for the cold season. Alpine farms (or "malghe") were built at higher altitudes.

After the fall of the Patriarchate and its replacement by the Republic of Venice (1420-1797), the exploitation of summer pastures was regulated and restrictions for sheep and goats were introduced to protect beech woods, in particular.

In the short Napoleonic period (1797-1814) the municipalities ("comuni") were set up, with no new developments for the uplands.

During the Habsburg rule (1814-1866), the use of pastures and woods was increasingly regulated and the Municipalities, which had received their Alpine farms as gifts from the patriarchs, sold some of their properties to private individuals. In this period the survey of Alpine pastures became very important. That they were assigned a higher fiscal value than meadows near villages or on valley floors shows the importance of Alpine farms for the Habsburg administration.

In 1866 Friuli was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy and late 19th century laws favoured woods to the detriment of pastures, but most Alpine farms were not affected, as they were often located beyond the timber limit.

Yesterday and today

The negative impact was particularly heavy on Friuli Venezia Giulia, where mountains – accounting for more than 40% of the Region's surface – are hit by adverse economic and social circumstances, in addition to being marginal compared to most of the other Alpine areas. In the early 20th century our Region hosted around 350 active Alpine farms and their number remained large until after WWII when, following the expansion of the industry and of the services sector, a swift drop set in.

In order to correctly read the latter data, which might imply a dramatic slump, the recent phenomenon of the consolidation of some summer pastures into a single economic entity should be taken into consideration. Hence, fewer but larger farms.

The modernizing process of Alpine farm structures caused structural and sanitary adjustments of housing and processing rooms and the enhancement of access and service roads to Alpine pastures, thus simultaneously promoting tourism. Over the 90s a number of high-altitude production units were modernized in order to develop rural tourism including catering and accommodation.

Human presence

An Alpine farm is located in high mountains and only opens in certain seasons. The main individual in charge here is the farmer who, whether owner or tenant, steers the various activities: from keeping and looking after the animals under his care to managing pastures, from organizing the working day to coordinating human, animal and material resources. Usually his practical tasks consist in processing milk and tending to the kitchen. He is helped by his collaborators – the assistant cheesemaker and the herdsmen – who are specialized according to their age and experience.