By Matthew Checker, BSc Ecology, MSc Human Ecology
A simple photographic and observational documentation was made comparing grazed and ungrazed open areas at 5 sites in the subalpine German and Austrian Alps (up to 1759m) to get an impression of the stability, health and biodiversity of vegetation and soils. The results showed strong evidence of erosion, compaction of plants and soil in areas grazed. Biodiversity reduction is also likely in the long-term – all due to the grazing of small numbers of cattle on a large area. The ungrazed areas all showed denser and higher vegetation growth and no erosion (not adjacent to- and caused by hiking tracks) with the exception of a slope over 60 0 which showed both lusher vegetation interspersed with strong signs of erosion. The steepness and deforested nature of this slope are likely to be the major erosion causes in this case. In view of the above issues that are accentuated by alpine ecologies, together with the pressures of accelerating climate change, food insecurity and related biodiversity reduction, health costs and ethics towards other sentient beings, it is urged that we provide farmers with funding for environmental stewardship and/or plant-based agriculture. Also urged is that society plays its part in the wider context through dietary change, advocacy and political pressure to make this practically realisable within the short window of opportunity that remains to protect our biosphere. A transparent and honest re-evaluation of abstract notions like “cultural landscapes” and traditions are also required.
1. THE SITES
Aiplspitz – Jägerkamp, near Geitau 03.08.2022 (max 1759m)
Bodenschneid, near Fischhausen-Neuhaus 10.08.2022 (max 1669m)
Just below the highest slopes I only saw and heard 3-5 cows. Vegetation reflected this, becoming more lush and higher with less signs of cow dung or tracks made by cows. It was also possible to see stark differences between grazed and ungrazed or less-grazed areas adjacent to one another.
UNGRAZED – OTHER
Kramerspitz, near Garmisch 12.08.2022 (observations at approx 1400m)
Open area in forest typical on the south flank of this mountain:
Seekarkopf, near Lenggries 14.08.2022 (max 1601m)
Ritzaualm near Kufstein 08.08.2022 (approx 1160m)
UNGRAZED – OTHER:
There is a common notion that all is well with dairy from the Alps because the animals supposedly graze on “natural, biodiverse “pastures and are free to roam around at will. The industry is keen to paint a rosy picture of sustainability and protection of biodiversity by their system wherever they can. Lured by alpine cheeses and other dairy products, and a vision of pretty, flower filled meadows in the sunshine occupied by happy, lazily chewing cows bearing tinkling bells with a backdrop of impressive mountain peaks, it is easy for a dairy-loving or mountain-loving person to be swayed by positive marketing messages from businesses whose success relies upon being believed to be ethical and “green”. 1 It’s hard or boring to look into the details of what is actually going on and have one’s beliefs and habits challenged, especially when it comes to taste. Additionally, a tendency to view concepts like local, traditional, cultural and artisan as always purely positive, only help further cement these habits and beliefs. Animal agriculture is a vast industry encompassing many larger and smaller companies, suffers from greenwashing and is protected by lobbyists just like any large market sector 2 regardless of individual business size.
So what is truth and what is fiction?
As a keen hiker, I decided to do a little observational “study” on the question in the summer of 2022. I wanted to compare grazed and ungrazed open areas via photographs to get an impression of the stability and diversity, with particular focus on levels of erosion and compaction of the soil and height and density of vegetation. I documented the areas at the next 5 sites where I simply wanted to have an enjoyable hike. The sites were not specifically chosen for the study itself.
This isn’t a rigourous scientific study by any means but at least provides some clear visual and circumstantial impressions and draws on background literature for conclusions.
Before globalisation and the onset of modern transport, many people were often reliant upon small numbers of farm animals to see them through times of food shortage and to get enough caloric input. The food system wasn’t propped up with tax-payers’ money in subsidies. Whether or not other agricultural methods with fewer or no animals may have met their needs is debatable. However, in the modern era this system is no longer relevant as practically nobody is living such a self-sufficient lifestyle and the options matching the more comfortable lifestyle that the vast majority want, include far more efficient and ethical systems than using animal agriculture to provide food.3 In Austria for example, the standardized grassland area per animal is between 2 and 4 hectares in the alpine regions and this illustrates the low caloric output per given area typical of dairy shown by many studies. 4 This low output also needs to be seen in the context of further major implications of such a food system: climate change, biodiversity 5 , health impacts from typical consumption of animal products 6 and ethics towards animals. 7 This could potentially even be extended to the costs of pandemics like Covid-19: even though this might be off the radar at first consideration, on closer inspection it becomes evident that it is is a very related topic.8 A holistic approach is much needed in science generally wherever possible and the highest priority should be the common good when determining solutions.
Problems with grazing by farm animals in the Alps, as in mountains elsewhere, are well-documented and can translate as soil erosion; loss of soil fertility, humus and nutrients; reduced soil thickness; smaller rootable space; reduced water reservoir of the soil and the soil drying out faster. 9 Biodiversity loss within the grazing system is a widespread problem, too. 10 36 Reduction in stability and the aforementioned issues have significant cost implications including for Alpine farming itself – loss of earnings; damage repair and for the public: landslides, mudslides, avalanches, sedimentation of watercourses, cleaning of streets, destruction of paths and other infrastructure. In an attempt to manage erosion and/or improve productivity, some farmers apply fertilisers which can aggravate the problem. 11
Pastures in mountains are frequently a product of clearing or degeneration of original, natural forest – especially in subalpine areas – which is one of the best stabilising forces, acting as watershed management, source of biodiversity, soil integrity and development, direct cooling, carbon sink and prevention of erosion and reduction of landslides and avalanches. 12 Natural forest provides necessary shelter and food for many birds and animals. Only approximately 665 ha of pristine forest still exist in the Alps although there is still a lot of biodiverse seminatural forest. Monocultural, industrial plantations are also common but can be very detrimental to biodiversity. Also the practice of clearfelling and the risk of complete wipeout by pests pose significant risks to the stability of soils in such plantations.13 The “cultural landscapes” discussed later, of much more open area generally is a product of the Early and High Middle Ages. The introduction of cattle, horse, sheep and especially goats into forests led to significant destruction thereof in these times. 14
According to one analysis, an effective avalanche barrier costs over half a million euros per hectare. Three quarters of avalanches in Bavaria originate in formally forested areas. Reforesting (i.e. the re-creation of semi-natural or natural, diverse forest) could therefore deal with three quarters of avalanche paths.15 Truely natural alpine meadows are also a phenomenon, are fragile and can also be quickly eroded, most notably by grazing sheep but they are also destroyed by unnatural afforesting and ski-developments. Resting places for livestock can cause significant erosion and long-term loss of biodiversity, such as grazing sheep in Wildengundkopf/Allgäu and Hirschbichl/Ammergebirge. Although in Europe there are no longer entire mountain flanks covered with sheep, nature conservation and effective regulation is still very challenging, especially in the south-west Alps. 16
The presence of livestock means the absence of many wild animals. Statistics from Südtirol in Austria in 2019 reveal that in total, 86,477 farm animals were brought onto Alpine pastures including 44,777 cows. In comparison, there are only 2000 Ibex and 5,500 Ptarmigan in the region. Visitors are far less likely to see these wild species than livestock. 17 Stocking density in the high valley of Userental in Switzerland has doubled since 1950 (approximately seven times as many sheep) 20.
Cows have become approx. 25-40% heavier over the years adding trampling pressure. 18 Cattle paths along slopes can significantly alter water and sediment flow by compacting and damaging the turf and creating stepping holes in which water can gather. Increasingly large parts of these tracks can slide down and ultimately cause larger landslides. 19 Slopes at risk of avalanche and landslides are also being regularly grazed which in the past were predominantly mown and where grazing was limited to short periods in early summer and autumn. Such low intensity applications may prevent tussocks of grass forming which, when combined with ice and snow, may be torn out by downwards creeping snowfields to create eroded patches. However, with increasing temperatures, any benefits accrued in terms of stability by low-level grazing appear to be declining because of diminishing root density in upper layers of soil. 20 There is a cut-off point at which erosion threatens the stability of the ecosystem. Compaction of soils increases erosion risk due to lower water retention. 21
The argument of sustainability used by proponents of pasture-fed livestock is mainly a myth in our system. Aside from significant natural climatic shifts like ice ages, or those causing flooding, natural systems that have evolved for millennia tend to be stable or evolving towards a stable equilibrium i.e. they tend towards being self-supporting. Increasing erosion in the Alps is a man-made, destructive problem and a major component is current densities of livestock. Only very low grazing densities that mimick natural systems with wild grazers could be considered as approaching a natural system and even then there are significant differences. To illustrate: the numerous wild grazers of natural savannas have coevolved together with their food-plants and predators over a much longer period of time than domestic livestock with theirs. The pasture-fed scenario is one where natural predators and grazers (competition) have generally been removed, either actively or passively e.g. due to forest clearance, and the physiology, behaviour and feeding requirements of domesticated livestock vary considerably from the wild animals that they have replaced. 22 “Grass-fed” supporters like to claim that their system represents a natural cycle despite actual, often substantial hidden inputs like externally-sourced feed and fertiliser (“ghost-acres”) 23, and their system is essentially being robbed of nutrients as carcasses are not returned to the soil and because of the high turnover of animals at young ages due to forced breeding and extraction. 24
Nor does the argument for increased biodiversity hold:
– any gains through open pastures occupied by low livestock density in the past are currently being lost due to higher density grazing as well as other factors already mentioned.
– biodiversity of the whole ecosystem, and not just its subdivisions must be weighed up in the context of the other major global issues mentioned elsewhere that also have local consequences. Global biodiversity can suffer from efforts to promote biodiverse but highly inefficient food systems that produce methane and prevent reforestation.
– even with the elimination of low density grazing, it is not always clear that biodiversity decreases long-term. 25
– biodiversity can increase initially due to natural reforestation before it decreases to a certain point with climax forest, and this period can last for a long time. 26
Moreover, regarding climate change, food security 27 and carbon-sinks – there is an urgent need to dramatically reduce methane and reforest, both of which are being prevented by animal agriculture in general 28, in the case of re-wilding due to the enormous land usage needed for grazing / feeding animals first to feed humans. This is also applicable to alpine areas. The IPCC leaked a report in 2022 which ranks the shift to a plant-based diet as having the greatest disruptive potential. 29 As extreme weather patterns become more frequent, we need to create more stability in vegetation on mountain slopes to protect watersheds and prevent landslides and avalanches, and to provide immediate cooling, all of which have enormous cost implications.
Additionally, there is the ethical aspect of needless exploitation of other sentient beings – supported by taxpayers’ money in subsidies – for reasons of taste, profit, culture and tradition alone. Artificial insemination of cows (as with pigs) is standard practice. The male calves don’t produce milk so are normally separated from their mothers up to a few days after birth and sent to be slaughtered at 8 months 30 31. In farming practice, dairy cows live an average of five to six years which is about a third of their natural lifespan. 32 They are slaughtered because they can no longer produce milk after being made pregnant as often as possible. They are essentially spent. Abuses of the system and failed stunnings are frequent in slaughterhouses as is psychological trauma of workers. 33
The assumptions were as follows:
– areas being grazed were where livestock was visible or audible within a visible area, and were free to roam and graze up to fences or walls.
– ungrazed areas were where no animals were visible or audible within visible area area, and where there were marked lack of signs of grazing typical of grazed areas: no paths (other than the hiking path), no signs of dung. This included some enclosures and a few open areas in forest.
The density of animals was noted for all areas observed, including for transitional areas (grazed to ungrazed within a small area), typically on steeper, higher slopes. The densiy, being almost impossible to calculate within the scope of this study counted only as impressions.
Sings of erosion, compaction of soils and vegetation, as well as height of vegetation was also noted (apparent in photos).
The grazed vegetation in the Alps was very short cropped except for what I presume were inedible or non-favoured plants to the grazers like thistles that were scattered around. Erosion was very visibly evident, As was compaction of vegetation and soil, shown by widespread abundance of contour ridges and frequent abundance of dandelions, an indicator species for compacted soils. 33 Within up to perhaps 20-30 hectares of land or more (difficult to assess) that was occupied by cows and showed typical signs of grazing, the numbers of cows only ranged up to about 30 as far as I could see and hear, i.e. small number of animals for large area with significant damage to the soil and vegetation.
The ungrazed areas in all cases were markedly more lush and no erosion was visible – with exception of the steepest slopes, most likely originally cleared of forest (Fig.1), where some erosion is to be expected – implying greater stability of soil. A superficial look showed a diverse array of species in these areas. In the case of the steep slope in fig. 1, biodiversity could not be ascertained at all. From a distance, however, higher vegetation growth was evident between the eroded patches, than in grazed areas.
Limitations of study
– unknown exact density of grazing animals above the number seen or heard. Animals that were only heard were only counted as one coming from any specific direction.
– unknown density over the previous years. From the literature referenced here, it would appear that with the exception of severely eroded areas, that vegetation can generally grow back on a yearly basis if grazing is sufficiently reduced or absent. 12 Whether or not the compaction and erosion was even worse in previous years is unknown.
– unknown if grazing formerly present on areas apparently currently ungrazed, like in Fig 1
– unknown detailed biodiversity specifics. It is assumed that at the level of erosion and compaction occurring, that biodiversity will decrease over the long term in areas grazed at the current rate. In comparison, the allowance of regrowth of climax vegetation (forest / shrub, grassland) is assumed to have the effect of increasing and stabilising biodiversity in the short and long-term. A comparison of these two scenarios with much lower grazing density allowing vegetation to recover with 1. livestock or 2. wild grazers in equilibrium with natural, reintroduced predators would be an interesting follow-up. However, in view of the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and large amount of evidence pointing towards plant-based agriculture, the need is to do such comparisons is overshadowed by an urgency for a rewilding programmes and reallocation of subsidies for any possible plant-based agriculture in the area.
Other factors than grazing or overgrazing, contributing to erosion relevant to the steep slope in Fig.1 could be:
– ski-tours which are becoming increasingly popular in the Alps. However, the sport art is preferred on deep snow which offers a certain layer of protection of the underlying vegetation and soil. This is in contrast with direct disturbance of soil by trampling and grazing cows in grazed areas. Ski resorts are far more intensive and damaging than ski-touring due to concentrated area with high volume of skiers. In this case – not adjacent to any alpine ski resort – the lack of erosion on the north facing flank below the summit of Bodenschneid which is both fairly steep (maybe 400) and where I have seen regular ski tourers, may indicate that this isn’t the main cause of erosion here, a slope of approx 600.
– loss of original forest (see background) and therefore convertion to grassland.
– clear-felling for forestry purposes, but evidently forestry has been absent from this slope for a long time.
– increasing extreme weather events due to climate change that effect steeper slopes like prolonged heavy rainfall, thick snow cover melting quickly with extreme temperature rise.
– hiking pressures / mountain-biking. These also weren’t evident at all on the slope, also neither from regular previous visits.
– abandonment of grazing and/or traditional 2-yearly mowing practices. As mentioned in background, others have argued that this is a factor together with overgrazing. However, it is not clear from these claims how any longer term effects of allowing forest regeneration where applicable would interplay to compensate for erosion effects on the whole, if that was the optimal goal for protection. It is also possible that local seeding with bentgrass Agrostis schraderiana could be a useful solution to quickly cover eroded areas with its runners, as a species is indigenous to the Alps and occurs at this altitude (approx. 1300-1500m) 25 34 The referenced literature also says nothing about:
- absolutely requiring grazing by livestock to do the job of stabilising steep slope temporarily on the way to reforesting it.
- allowing and encouraging wild grazers to do the same service. This might be a very feasible scenario, especially if animal agriculture was generally dramatically reduced as is being advised by such institutions as the IPPC, so that reintroduction of- or recolonisation by locally exterminated but potentially ecologically stabilising key species could be allowed in these areas, like bears (to spread shrub seeds) and wolves (to control deer populations). The polemic in media regarding such species as wolves is due in large part to the concerns of animal farmers who see their income being threatened.
- providing incentives for 2-yearly mowing only, for the purpose of producing green manure for growing crops directly for human consumption rather than feeding animals first.
Several different scenarios become evident as possible solutions to increasing sustainability in alpine areas, feasible in the modern era, to assist the local human populace whilst remedying the broader climate crisis and food security, and to practice ethics towards other sentient beings, especially:
1. Eliminating the application of livestock that cause erosion and compaction even at small densities completely and providing subsidies for more efficient, ethical and sustainable food sources and environmental protection.
2. Reducing the numbers of domestic livestock to the point at which sustainability is no longer a concern – essentially as a non-extractive /non-abusive industry i.e. the animals provide some similar services to what more numerous wild animals in the past might have done by maintaining pockets of open areas which contribute to biodiversity. The animals would be allowed to live out their lives and not be forced bred. Any “extraction” would only come – if at all – at the point of natural death. This could be seen as a temporary solution on the path to establishing wild populations of grazing and predatory species in natural balance, or it could be a long-term solution. However, there might be issues in the latter case with natural population expansion of cow (and other livestock-) populations and how to manage that.
I would argue for option No.1. The sooner we employ plant-based agriculture instead of animal agriculture as a food system, the sooner we can recreate stable ecosystems through rewilding and reintroductions, and the more time we win by creating urgent carbon sinks and stabilising / regenerating protective biodiversity whilst we make a transition to a saner, more equitable global political, economic and social system.
There are several key interest groups that serve to block sustainability for the common good:
– livestock farmers and capitalism
Whilst livestock farmers in Western countries including in the Alps may be keen to promote their products as being sustainable and do indeed employ certain sustainability initiatives that are incentivised by regulations or funding, they are obviously not in favour of anything more sustainable (or ethical) that reduces their profits if they have decided to stick to their current businesses model. Small farmers are increasingly under financial pressure due to e.g. unfairly low prices, have to work very long hours and it is not easy to transform a business. It would involve learning new skills and strategies and possibly investment in new machinery and infrastructure. Subsidies and other policy instruments would be essential here to initiate the changes.
– consumer habits
Although there is a transformation in eating habits towards more plant-based options, the change is not rapid enough to match the environmental crisis. Over 95% of the population in Germany and Austria regularly eat animal products and this is no less in most other industrialised countries. Demand for dairy products that are labelled as “Alpine” will remain too high – partly due to taste reasons and partly because of green- and ethics-washing by the livestock industry – as long as:
– those products are affordable to current consumers;
– plant-based alternatives aren’t attractive enough;
– media coverage exposing the myths, or public activism is too limited in frequency and spread to encourage better consumer choices;
– policies to initiate change through laws and incentives are insufficient or completely absent.
Consumers play a vital function in driving change towards more ethical and sustainable systems.
– perceptions of “cultural landscape” and the tourist industry
The tourist industry is a major source of income in the Alps. A combination of lobbyism and marketing by the tourist industry together with livestock farmers has further strengthened the notion that formally forested pastures with grazing Alpine cows, sheep and goats and unhindered views into the distance are traditional, cultural and therefore entirely valid. Axel Borsdorf aptly named it “Disneyfication” 35 : unnatural landscapes serving as a kind of commercial park and playground. The reasoning and justifications for cultural landscapes are often irrational, arbitrary and superficial. Who defines the starting point of a tradition? Before the Middle Ages, there was far more forest. Most importantly, it is nonsensical to talk about such concepts without a thorough, transparent and honest analysis of costs and benefits of different scenarios and we need solutions based upon prioritisation of necessity that extends to global sustainability. Think global, act local is key. Ultimately, if the life-support system is degenerating, then it is unsustainable. If it is unsustainable then in the long run everybody suffers on balance, humans, animals as well as ecosystems. Prioritising abstract notions and desires based on luxury and privilege above sustainability is therefore absurd. The question of hierarchy of needs and separation of necessity from luxury will be an increasingly hot topic. Meeting the fundamental needs for all should be the goal, even if in practice this will be challenging and complex.
Within the limits of this not very rigorous observation, it was clear that grazing by cattle even the small densities observed could not be described as sustainable or natural in thes 4 subalpine areas cleared of original forest. Diminishing stability of soils and vegetation will eventually cause major financial costs, and also potentially cost of lives due to more frequent and bigger avalanches and landslides. According to the literature and from my own regular hiking experience and knowlege, these are typical subalpine scenarios and montane grasslands are being similarly degraded. With the additional major concerns of especially methane output and habitat loss due to animal farming, this extractive industry presents a major challenge to protecting mountain ecologies in the Alps generally unless at a very low stocking density. Even at current stocking levels it is clear that it is a very inefficient way of providing food. To reduce stocking to sustainable levels, and to adopt the highest standards of animal welfare within the limitations of a system of exploitation would make it even more so, resulting only in premium products available to the more privileged. This further demonstrates an urgent need to transition to plant-based agriculture, supported by much scientific literature, and in view of the abuses of other sentient creatures for non-essential reasons, the dairy industry does significantly far more harm than good. We are reliant upon farmers but then only when they run sustainable and ethical systems. Agricultural subsidies for the Alps as elsewhere should be directed towards training farmers to adopt the right practices to grow food and/or become environmental stewards. They should naturally be paid fair wages for this work. The common good (humans, non-human animals and environment) must be set as a priority over arbitary concepts such as specific traditions, profit or personal culinary desires if we are to see a liveable future on this planet.
1. examples of marketing with omissions of uncomfortable facts like: forced-breeding; slaughter at young age; removal of calves from mother and their slaughter – or vague statements / no statements on: methane outputs, comparison of carbon sequestration with re-wilding:
3. see “inefficiency” https://spiral-m.com/animal-agriculture-and-environmental-impacts
15. p120 https://www.academia.edu/51736378/Kulturlandschaftsverlust_durch_Verbuschung_und_Verwaldung_im_subalpinen_und_hochmontanen_H%C3%B6henstockwerk_Die_Folgen_des_klimatischen_und_sozio%C3%B6konomischen_Wandels
19. pp3,10 https://www.sg.ch/umwelt-natur/umwelt/boden/bodenbelastungen/_jcr_content/Par/sgch_accordion_list/AccordionListPar/sgch_accordion_931910392/AccordionPar/sgch_downloadlist/DownloadListPar/sgch_download.ocFile/Alpenbewirtschaftung%20und%20Erosionsproblematik_Bericht%202007.pdf
23. Monbiot, G. (2022) Regenesis, Penguin Books Ltd
26. p106 https://www.academia.edu/51736378/Kulturlandschaftsverlust_durch_Verbuschung_und_Verwaldung_im_subalpinen_und_hochmontanen_H%C3%B6henstockwerk_Die_Folgen_des_klimatischen_und_sozio%C3%B6konomischen_Wandels
35. p121 https://www.academia.edu/51736378/Kulturlandschaftsverlust_durch_Verbuschung_und_Verwaldung_im_subalpinen_und_hochmontanen_H%C3%B6henstockwerk_Die_Folgen_des_klimatischen_und_sozio%C3%B6konomischen_Wandels