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Why Donkeys and mule nannies carry lambs down Italian mountains

Why Donkeys and mule nannies carry lambs carried down Italian mountains
Source: GrandVoyageItaly

The 1000-year-old annual tradition known as transhumance was recognised by UNESCO in 2019 as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

‘transumanza’ is still practised by a few breeders who still follow the ancient tradition

Each year, donkeys and mule nannies carry newborn lambs down italian mountains in custom made side saddles, all the way to grazing areas. In late summer, shepherds drive huge flocks of livestock from the pre-alpine hills to the plains of Lombardy for grazing. The millennium-old annual tradition known as transhumance was recognised by UNESCO in 2019 as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. From Latin ‘trans’ beyond and ‘humus’ Earth, it is not only one of Italy’s oldest agricultural traditions, but also of countries like Spain, France, Greece, and Switzerland. 

For between 10-20 days, around 60 flocks make the trip each year, with each containing 1,000-1,500 animals. Cows, sheep and donkeys move along centuries-old migration paths called ‘batida’. However, newborn lambs are unable to make this journey on their own. Instead, they are carried in a custom made side saddle by the donkeys and mule nannies to be later returned to their mothers at rest stops for a meal and some nuzzling. Today, the transumanza is only practised by a very few breeders who still follow the ancient tradition. Additional information translated from: Rete Italiana De Cultura Popolare.

Newborn lambs are unable to make this journey on their own. Instead, they ride in the pouches of a specially made saddle on the back of a donkey or a mule nanny. They are taken down at rest stops and returned to their mothers for a bite to eat and a bit of nuzzling. Photo: medeamoon
Donkey nannies in Italy. Each year in Italy, grazing animals are moved from high pastures down to the plains. Newborn lambs are unable to make this journey on their own. Instead, they ride in the pouches of a specially made saddle on the back of a donkey or a mule nanny. They are taken down at rest stops and returned to their mothers for a bite to eat and a bit of nuzzling. Photo: medeamoon Source: Facebook/Avantgardens
through a territory very different from the bucolic pastoral landscape one would expect.
Transumanza follows the seasonal journey of the last walking shepherds in Northern Italy… through a territory very different from the bucolic pastoral landscape one would expect. Source: StefanoCarnelli
but are instead traced only by generations of custom, and require continuous adaptation.
They move their flocks on foot from the highly urbanised Pó Valley to the pristine alpine mountains following routes that on first sight may look linear and straightforward… but are instead traced only by generations of custom, and require continuous adaptation. Source: StefanoCarnelli
so that every year the journey is, by nature, similar to the previous one but, by necessity, never identical.
New roads, new buildings or even new crops constantly modify their path… so that every year the journey is, by nature, similar to the previous one but, by necessity, never identical. Source: StefanoCarnelli
due to a changed economic model where the wool is not cost-effective any more.
The flocks are now larger than in the past, between 1000 and 1500 sheep each… due to a changed economic model where the wool is not cost-effective any more. Source: StefanoCarnelli
Instead, the meat has replaced wool in a market mainly directed towards the growing Muslim community. Source: StefanoCarnelli
and innovation suggests an alternative mapping of this complex urban and social environment.
Transumanza shows a scenario in flux where the clash between Local and Global, tradition… and innovation suggests an alternative mapping of this complex urban and social environment. Source: StefanoCarnelli
Photographer StefanoCarnelli was Milan and lived in Lisbon and Barcelona before moving to London in 2013. Source: StefanoCarnelli
practiced in the mountain areas of the peninsula and the Italian islands since prehistoric times and which constitutes the form of seasonal and temporary migration of flocks, herds and shepherds, in transit from the pastures at high altitude to those of the plains, along the natural routes of the sheep tracks.
From the end of summer until the first autumn rigors, the period of transhumance extends, (from the Latin “trans”, beyond and “humus”, land)… practiced in the mountain areas of the peninsula and the Italian islands since prehistoric times and which constitutes the form of seasonal and temporary migration of flocks, herds and shepherds, in transit from the pastures at high altitude to those of the plains, along the natural routes of the sheep tracks. Source: StefanoCarnelli
to date, although increasingly replaced by modern means of travel, from railways to trucks, the ancient customs still exist in some areas.
This activity, which has been an opportunity for contact and commercial exchange, attests, with the organisation of the trip and the gathering of shepherds, consolidated social rites, being among the most significant events of the agro-pastoral calendar; to date, although increasingly replaced by modern means of travel, from railways to trucks, the ancient customs still exist in some areas. Source: StefanoCarnelli
Cows, as well as horses, sheep and goats, as a sign of thanksgiving for a good summer season, are decorated with garlands of flowers and branches, images of saints to receive the protection of Heaven, mirrors and bells as a defense against negativity.
In Piedmont, along the slopes of the Maritime Alps, the centuries-old transhumance has united the populations of the Ligurian and Cuneo mountains, while in Trentino Alto Adige in numerous locations the desmontegada, demontication, is celebrated. Cows, as well as horses, sheep and goats, as a sign of thanksgiving for a good summer season, are decorated with garlands of flowers and branches, images of saints to receive the protection of Heaven, mirrors and bells as a defense against negativity. Source: StefanoCarnelli
also involving the Marche, Umbrian and Lazio areas, towards the Tuscan Maremma, while in southern Italy the activity persists mainly between Abruzzo and the Apulian Table, with branches both towards the Gargano.
In the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, from the Middle Ages to the 1950s of the last century, from the Emilian and Romagna side the flow of transhumance unfolded… also involving the Marche, Umbrian and Lazio areas, towards the Tuscan Maremma, while in southern Italy the activity persists mainly between Abruzzo and the Apulian Table, with branches both towards the Gargano. Source: StefanoCarnelli
In Sardinia, the pastoral communities involved in the movements crowned the Gennargentu massif until the 1970s, while in Sicily the activity is located in the Madonìe and in the Nebrodi mountains. Source: GrandVoyageItaly
These streets, immersed in the landscape, in recent decades have become the subject of specific care and conservation projects, in their function as visual and geographical references, dotted with artifacts often covered with religious and superstitious symbologies and as signs of specific historical-anthropological value left over the millennia by pastoral culture, from rest structures to places of worship.
Indispensable to preserve a deeply rooted identity culture, the tratturi, grassy, stony or clay paths of considerable breadth, deriving from the passage and trampling of herds and flocks can be identified as a network structure. These streets, immersed in the landscape, in recent decades have become the subject of specific care and conservation projects, in their function as visual and geographical references, dotted with artifacts often covered with religious and superstitious symbologies and as signs of specific historical-anthropological value left over the millennia by pastoral culture, from rest structures to places of worship. Source: GrandVoyageItaly
from Terence and Virgil to Pliny the Younger, from Torquato Tasso to Gabriele D’Annunzio (“September, let’s go it’s time to migrate.” from “The Shepherds”), and has given rise in central Italy and up to the lands of Abruzzo, to the “poets-shepherds”, custodians of the “off by the cuff”, the poem in eighth rhyme, born thanks to the reading of immortal classics, but also of poems inspired by local legends, texts on which to practice poetic challenges with octaves, an activity still present and recognised by the Italian Network of Culture Popular with awards dedicated to the Witnesses of Popular Culture®.
Transhumance thousand-year history has inspired writers and poets over the centuries… from Terence and Virgil to Pliny the Younger, from Torquato Tasso to Gabriele D’Annunzio (“September, let’s go it’s time to migrate.” from “The Shepherds”), and has given rise in central Italy and up to the lands of Abruzzo, to the “poets-shepherds”, custodians of the “off by the cuff”, the poem in eighth rhyme, born thanks to the reading of immortal classics, but also of poems inspired by local legends, texts on which to practice poetic challenges with octaves, an activity still present and recognised by the Italian Network of Culture Popular with awards dedicated to the Witnesses of Popular Culture®. Source: GrandVoyageItaly
The sheep moms seem fine with everything.
Sheep nanny at work. The sheep moms seem fine with everything. Source: GrandVoyageItaly
The practise is as widespread as Lesotho, Africa. Source: Roundtheworldkid.com
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