Humans have been herding animals for thousands of years to have a ready source of meat, milk and clothing. But herding techniques are just as varied as the animals herded and the uses to which they are put. In the UK, we keep sheep for the meat; in the Andes, they keep alpacas for their dung; and in Ethiopia they exchange cattle for wives.


Herding Herding

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About Herding

We’ve all seen films with American cowboys rustling cattle on horseback or Welsh farmers driving their sheep through the mountains. But there are other instances of herding around the world that we don’t see quite so regularly, though they all have one thing in common - a unique co-dependent relationship between humans and animals.

High up in the Andes mountains of South America the temperatures can fall well below freezing and at these altitudes there are no trees to burn for firewood. Yet people still manage to live in this barren and desolate landscape, thanks largely to the animals that they keep around them: alpacas.

Alpacas are related to camels and llamas but are much smaller with thick wool that is perfect insulation in this bitterly cold environment. Yet perhaps the most important thing they have to offer the people of the high Andes is not their wool but their dung which the locals burn to keep warm and cook food.

In East Africa, the climate is very different and for the Suri of Ethiopia cattle are the key to survival. As result, a man who wants to marry must give as many as 60 cattle to his bride’s family as a dowry. Since no cattle means no wife, men will risk their life not just to protect their own cattle but to steal the cattle of others. Faced with this ever-present threat, the men compete in vicious stick-fighting competitions to show off their skills and bravery.

The Arctic is too cold for cattle but perfect for the reindeer that the Sami people herd. Around 40,000 Sami live in Norway and about 3,000 of them herd reindeer for food, clothing, and profit. By castrating the dominant males, the herders are able to control and semi-domesticate the whole herd. Even to this day, many Sami believe that very first Sami herder was the man who first castrated a reindeer using his teeth!

For the Darhad people of Mongolia, horses are not just their pride and joy but indispensible for riding, breeding and even eating. As nomads, they spend almost their whole lives on their horses, following their horse herds from one green pasture to another.

At the other extreme are the ‘helicowboys’ of Australia, a group of ‘muster pilots’ who herd cattle from behind the wheel of a helicopter. Together the pilots drive the growing herd across the outback, to and from the main ranch, in the full knowledge that about 10 muster pilots a year crash on the job.

But not all herd animals can be domesticated. Despite the fact that alpacas and llamas have been herded for centuries, humans have had little success with their camelid cousins, the guanacos and vicunas. But there is a price to be paid for wandering free and in the 1960s excessive hunting drove vicuna numbers to an all-time low. Sadly, what humans can’t take by charm they will often take by force.

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