PAP 44 : A balance between natural dynamics and human constructions

Pastoral Landscapes

Laura Nowak, Marc Benoît, November 2020

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Concerned about ensuring the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 50 planning professionals have come together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in spatial planning policies.

Relating experiences, analysing processes, identifying methods, our editorial platform periodically disseminates notes and notes to deepen the debate and facilitate the dissemination of initiatives led by the territories. In this article, Laura Novak, landscape designer and Marc Benoît, director of research at INRA, propose a study on different scales of the impact of pastoralism on the Sellanche mountain pasture in the Haut-Verdon (FR).

Pastoralism is an extensive farming method in which herds of cattle or sheep, goats, more rarely horses, and often a combination of these animals, make the most of natural plant cover that is often difficult to exploit by grazing these grassland resources at lower cost. It was first practised by nomadic peoples but its historical presence has often been a way for rural societies to adapt to demographic pressure. While often linked to a transhumant livestock system, it is now used to develop agricultural, urban and industrial wasteland, or to manage protected natural areas. Pastoralist populations are estimated at 26 million people worldwide. Although it provides only 10% of human meat consumption, pastoralism builds the landscapes of more than a quarter of the world’s land mass and meets many of today’s challenges. Based on climatic transhumance - people move up to escape the heat and down again when it gets cold - pastoralism is one of the livestock industry’s responses to climate change. It uses existing resources and adapts to them by modifying its practices. This extensive system makes it possible to feed livestock during periods of severe drought. Pastoralism remains the most energy-efficient agricultural model, based on the non-mechanisation of the land and mobilising the sole energy of the animals and the herders who guide them. It also partly responds to the problems posed by the search for land: while the difficulties of new agricultural installations are often due to the lack of cultivable land, extensive livestock farming concerns generally abundant non-cultivable land.

Summer pastures, gaining altitude

Pastoralism in the summer pastures is an ancestral practice, as the famous engravings of the Tassili n’Ajjer, for example, attest. It is mainly established in mountain regions. In the season when hay is harvested in the valley, the animals go to graze on the plant cover at high altitude. They come back down in the harsh season to feed in the winter from the hay of the year previously stored. Alpine pasture (Alp=sommet) thus allows the valley meadows to be relieved and a non-mechanisable resource to be exploited. A system linked to the climate and the mountain ecosystem for thousands of years, pastoralism in summer pastures is based on the fine practices of shepherds who know how to use the locomotion capacity of their herds to seek out the layering of plant growth. This cyclical practice has shaped and built the mountain pasture, a typical landscape entity in European mountains as well as in other mountain ranges in the world. A specific fauna and flora have adapted to the climatic conditions, the altitude and above all to the continuous pressure of the livestock, its grazing and its droppings. A fragile balance has been established between the mountain pasture, the shepherd and his sheep, in which each needs the other to persist. The shepherd must know how to respect this complex plant resource if he wants to continue to benefit from it. Let’s analyse the Sellanche mountain pasture in the Haut Verdon, at the meeting point between the mountain and Mediterranean climates. We will study at different scales, illustrating the know-how of the shepherd, the impact of pastoralism on the shaping of these emblematic landscapes of the Alps.

Landscape diagnosis of the Sellanche mountain pasture

This mountain pasture is situated in the Haut Verdon, department of the Alpes de Hautes Provence. A small mountain of about 277 ha, La Sellanche has four districts 1, which are grazed from mid-July to early October 2. The flock consists of 1200 ewes and lambs, about fifteen Rove goats, five guard dogs and two donkeys. Two pègues 3 are mixed: that of the transhumant breeder R. Piche and one breeder, C. Fournier, whose head office is located in the commune of Beauvezer.

On this pastoral mountain, different scales of landscape organise the time and the territory of the herd :

The landscape units

We will distinguish similar areas of the mountain pasture by their vegetation cover, sunshine, slope, and the behaviour of the ewes in relation to the forage resource.

1 - Around the hut

The hut was built on the side of a scree slope and leaned against a mountain slope to protect it from the wind. A spring, above, is captured and brings the water down. The tower of the hut is dedicated to the night park, now indispensable due to the presence of the wolf in the mountains. The park is moved about every week to avoid a too pink concentration of manure and the erosion of the plant cover by trampling. The contribution of sheep droppings causes a strong degradation of the natural flora, and favours the establishment of nettle.

2 - The ascent to the summit

This is the easiest part to keep the animals there. With its bowl shape, the Sellanche gorge surrounds the ewes, which scatter there and climb to the summits where the grass is short and fine, a meal that the ewes particularly appreciate. The risk of overgrazing is therefore present as the ewes pass through it to climb the ridges. Between 1950 and 2300 m above sea level, it is an alpine limestone grassland, dominated by the summit of the Grand Croix, which rises to 2300 m in a dome that offers a 360° panorama.

3 - A reforested forest

The northernmost district is mostly covered with woods replanted at the end of the 19th century by the RTM (Restoration of Mountain Land). Larch, Cembro pine and Scots pine can be found here. It offers a coarser grass 4, taller, already present in the sub-alpine level. Many raspberry trees grow here, indicating a destructured soil. This area is difficult to access in some places (scree slopes, dead trees, etc.). The forest brings a freshness appreciated by the sheep during hot periods. In autumn, they tend to pass through it without making sufficient use of the resource.

4 - From the slopes to the adret

On this steep slope between 2000 and 2200 m, the alpine meadow type vegetation is similar to that of the Sellanche Gorge. It is composed of vulnerable, bellflower, astragalus, thyme, yarrow and alchemilla. It also offers a coarser grass (fescue, spikenard) which the ewes appreciate less. They therefore tend to take up less space 5 and to walk to more pleasant places. The adret slopes are well exposed.

The grass is ripe there earlier but also dries faster. Little by little, larch trees are taking an important place. If the tree dynamic continues, the Sellanche mountain pasture could become a fully wooded mountain.

5 - The defence of the bars

Mediterranean flora can be found below 2000 m, between the subalpine and mountain levels: calamus, savory, lavender. Exposed to the adret, this steep slope is covered with snow for less time. There is a lot of marl and springs for the sheep to drink. This area is becoming more and more closed in as juniper and cembro pine trees are growing here.

6 - Groume Gorge

It is covered with a calcicole lawn on the subalpine level, limestone scree and a wooded area in the lower part. Its basin-shaped geomorphology forces the ewes to graze on a variety of grasses: shorter on the top, at the Mal Ubac peak, and coarser at the bottom of the gorge. Depending on the area, the ewes value the grassland resource to a greater or lesser extent, which will eventually modify its evolution. The work of the shepherd consists in constraining the sheep’s route in order to be able to make the most of all the grass present. However, as the flock prefers certain areas, the mountain is not « eaten » uniformly. Depending on the exposure, the slope, the prairie resource and the shepherd’s lead 6, the pressure exerted by the ewes may be more or less important. With the return of the wolf as a predator in recent years, grazing pressure has concentrated around the huts. The repatriation of the ewes in the evening causes many return trips to this area. Contained by electrified nets that encircle the ewes, the night park encloses the animals in the same place, causing overcrowding and erosion of the grass cover. Nitrophilous flora is often found in these places: bon-Henri goosefoot, nettles, shepherd’s purse, and the appearance of erosion figures with the uncovering of the soil.

Building the landscape day by day with the sheep by a permanent back and forth movement between the different scales of the mountain.

The shepherd’s gaze embraces the blade of grass that the ewe eats at the moment, the district whose resources he must make the most of throughout the month, and the whole of the mountain pasture where he will remain with the flock until the beginning of autumn. A to-and-fro movement is set up between an S focal point, with the fine observation of details on the soil, an M focal point which evaluates the rate of unconsumed ears (the refusals), an L focal point which observes the overall coverage rate (the biomass still consumable), and an XL view which looks at the landscape units on the slopes in order to reread the effects of the previous days. These different landscape readings structure the shepherd’s thinking.

Temporality S: attention to each hour of grazing, as the soil is a rare component of the alpine pasture.

Soils are the source of the quality of the fodder resource offered to the herd. Unlike a valley bottom meadow, summer pastures often have stony, rocky soils and are therefore not very rich in organic matter. Sometimes a rare but palatable grass is better, in the eyes of the shepherd, than an abundant but unpalatable grass: the taps 7 and scree slopes seem to offer a low resource, but the rare grass is particularly appreciated by the ewes.

Temporality M: a shepherd’s day

1. Take the sheep out of the park.

2. 2. Give them the bias, the direction towards the part of the neighbourhood where they should go to graze. The weather plays on the behaviour of the flock: scorching heat stops them while dense hail, rain and wind tend to make them run, thus modifying the planned route.

3. Unemployment. During the hot periods of July/August, the ewes are unemployed 8. Unemployment can last a few hours or almost all day, depending on the heat and the appetite of the sheep.

4. Bring the ewes into the pen at night. Counting the index ewes 9 makes it possible to make sure, in the evening when returning to the hut, that no flock has scattered and that almost all the ewes are there. The appearance of the landscape facets of each grazing area is read as a discreet injunction to change the behaviour of the flock. Landscape indicators such as the slope or the palatability of the vegetation cover strongly influence the ewes’ route. Reciprocally, the ewes impact the height of the ground cover, the density of unconsumed ears, the soil amendment, the drains 10 created by their passage one behind the other. These dynamics leave their mark on the alpine pasture landscape.

Temporality L: managing the grassland resource at district level

The competence of the shepherd is to know how to best lead the ecological sustainability of a given territory, in order to be able to ensure the feeding of the animals. « Getting the ewes to eat is a difficult exercise. This empirical knowledge is passed on from shepherd to shepherd and is based on constant attention. On the spot, the shepherd in charge of a flock refines his understanding by constantly watching over the flock’s progress and the resulting aspect of the mountain.

Scale XL: knowledge takes a step back, see the whole of the mountain pasture

By entrusting his herd to the shepherd, the farmer also delegates to him the maintenance of the mountain pastoral landscape and its plant cover. A mountain « badly eaten » by overgrazing, a district abandoned will see its resources partly destroyed. By collecting dead wood, cutting his firewood, creating stone shelters, landscaping the area around the hut and the action of more than a thousand grazing sheep, the shepherd becomes the gardener of the mountain.

How pastoralism works in the long term

The alpine pasture is a human construction dating back thousands of years, the changes in which can be appreciated over several years. The upkeep of the mountain by the sheep is therefore a long-lasting but sustainable task.

The central role of the observation of the landscape and the flock: the eye organises the pastoral functioning.

The observation of the landscape is a representation of the shepherd’s own pastoral system. It is made up of the landscape indicators that enable the pastoral system to be controlled: the period of maturity and density of the grass, the presence of springs and streams for watering the sheep, the spread of the forest over open spaces, the presence of taps and scree slopes, rocky bars, or any other element that makes up the mountain pasture. The eye of the shepherd is mainly focused on the resource: if the grass has been sufficiently taken up by the sheep, the shepherd may decide to change the area. He must also know how to interpret the external elements - vultures, eagles, wolves - which can be a threat to the flock 11.

The shepherd is attentive to the behaviour of the ewes towards the resource. The body condition of the ewe is also a good indicator of whether the flock has eaten well: the rumen on the left side should form a bump. The shepherd notices if a ewe is sick, limping etc. Caring for ewes when they are injured, checking the state of the fodder resources on the ground, anticipating the effects of the storm of the previous day, are all practices to be mastered in the shepherd’s trade. Landscape diagnosis seems to us to be the central activity of the shepherd’s trade, enabling a dynamic and complex technical system to be managed.

The skills of the traditional shepherdess and those of the landscape architect that we are sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary 12. Like the shepherd, the landscape gardener takes a sensitive look at the natural dynamics of the mountain territory. She is attentive to changes in the state of the vegetation: overgrazing, closing of the landscape, invasion of the pasture by undesirable species. The landscape gardener is also attentive to the soil. Erosion in the night park where the soil is exposed if the couchades 14 are repeated in the same place, the corridors used repeatedly are practices which distress the landscape gardener but are part of the shepherdess’s job. Her landscape awareness leads her to regularly change the night parks to avoid excessive soil erosion. For her part, the shepherdess tries to avoid making the sheep sleep on soil that is too full of bacteria. The net bed perfumes the surroundings of the hut and prevents a good soil amendment on the rest of the mountain. During the « free » guard, at a time when canis lupus did not frequent the French mountain pastures, the ewes slept on the ridges, which allowed an amendment enriching the poorest soils. There are still traces of ancient « free » couchades, often greener circles. The landscape gardener and the shepherdess bring the sheep back to the hut every evening. They are consciously wondering about the limits of this system: what will the mountain landscape look like when the ridges have become impoverished and nettle and the goosefoot have invaded the area around the huts?

Pastoralism and sustainability

In the mountains, the landscape is built every day from a wealth of information enabling the delicate adjustment between the needs of the herd in all its diversity, the fragile fodder resources, a remarkable biodiversity and soils that are often rare and composed mainly of rock. How can mountain areas be sustained over the long term? Pastoralism today must face up to the social, economic and environmental changes facing our society. The great predator present in the Alps has called into question the entire pastoral system that had been built up in almost a century. The profession has been forced to adapt and change its practices without the consultation or approval of mountain users. Numerous state aids have been put in place to compensate for the losses and surplus workload. These bandaging policies do not seem to stop the problem, which is worsening year by year, gradually spreading throughout France. It is by adopting a stance of project, innovation and reflection that the mountain pastures will be able to adapt to the changes. By renovating the shepherds’ huts, by carrying out ecobuilding and clearing to reopen the environment, by creating impluviums to water the sheep, the mountains will remain in their time while improving gently. The landscape of the pastoral mountains will evolve, but the link between the shepherd and his mountain will remain.

In what way is the alpine pasture a post-oil landscape?

The Paysages de l’après-pétrole collective has identified five criteria to characterise transition landscapes 13, which are present in this age-old practice. Pastoralism values alpine pasture grass, a local resource, without the need for fossil energy. The functioning of the buildings is exemplary in terms of energy because, being far from any electrical network, it is autonomous with solar panels and batteries. Pastoralism is a sustainable practice that has survived through the ages. It has proven itself over the long term and continues to endure as a landscape for transition. The transdisciplinarity of the shepherd’s profession is a strong point of pastoralism. The shepherd knows how to look after the animals and, to do so, manages natural spaces whose beauty he perpetuates. The Causses and the Cévennes have been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site as a « cultural landscape of Mediterranean agro-pastoralism ». This recognition should encourage the grazing of herds in natural areas in order to preserve their renewable resources for the benefit of all.

  • 1 Space delimited by natural boundaries (valleys, river, bars, …) which allows to manage the grass on a monthly basis: July, August, September, …

  • 2 It does not compete much with its neighbours which spread over 400 or 500 Ha: the mountain pastures of Abeyrons, Chalufy and Juan, which are also occupied all summer by the herds.

  • 3 Provencal term designating the farmer’s mark to distinguish his flock from other ewes in a mixed flock. When the mark is put on the ewes, they are said to be « pégué » (trapped).

  • 4 Thicker and taller grass which has reached an advanced stage of maturity which is less attractive to the ewes. This grass could be enhanced by mixed grazing with cows.

  • 5 Provençal term designating the way in which the ewes spread out in the pastures to consume each at a sufficient distance from the other.

  • 6 The way in which the shepherd leads his animals.

  • 7 Very slippery marly area that the ewes cross by creating drailles (see note 10). This type of rock, which is characteristic of the region, gives the mountains a desert appearance.

  • 8 When the ewes come closer together because of the meridian heat and the amount of grass ingested in their rumen. During this period, the ewes ruminate.

  • 9 Marked ewes are distinguished by their colour, breed, the ring they wear or any other distinctive sign.

  • 10 The draille is a path created by the ewes by dint of passing through it. These drailles have an impact on the landscape. It is an erosive attack on the curvature of the

  • 11 A flight of vultures may herald a wolf attack. A wolf dropping shows a passageway there.

  • 12 A graduate landscape designer, Laura Nowak finds many similarities between the jobs of a shepherdess and a landscape designer. The profession now attracts people who are looking for meaning, who are not from the rural world and who bring new skills with them from their studies of geography, ecology, management or nature conservation. Many of them have followed the training at the École du Merle in Salon-de-Provence, with an environmental approach to the profession. The ever-increasing predation from year to year encourages the retention of shepherds and shepherd’s helpers. Those who wish to learn the trade therefore often go through the status of aide-shepherd, which opens the door to a multitude of profiles.

  • 13 A place where the sheep lie down to ruminate at night or during thatching. These places were originally defined naturally by the ewes but are now constrained with the help of electric nets.

  • 14 Start from local resources, aim for multifunctional solutions from a transversal perspective, foresee the involvement of the inhabitants and aim for beauty.


To go further


  • Roger Blench, 2001. You can’t go back. Pastoralists in the new millenium, FAO.

  • Marc Bloch, 1931. Les Caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française, tome 1, A. Colin, Paris.

  • Michel Meuret (Coord.), 2010. Un savoir-faire de bergers, QUAE.

  • Dominique Henry, 2012. ”Entre-tenir la montagne”: paysage et ethnogéographie du travail des éleveurs en montagne pyrénéenne: hautes vallées du Gave de Pau, de Campan et d’Oueil-Larboust.» Université Toulouse le Mirail - Toulouse II.

  • G. Lebaudy, B. Caraguel, Alpes 2010, « Un berger, des bergères,… Nouveaux enjeux d’un métier en mutation », Fédération des alpages de l’Isère, Association des Bergers de l’Isère