Traversing Climate Change

By Virendra Mathur onApr. 07, 2021in Environment and Ecology

In the mystical lands of Bharmour and Lahaul, located in the north-western part of Himachal Pradesh, India, a seasonal event takes place every year that is an elegant harmony between local culture and nature. Here in the traditional seat of Gaddi shepherds, the community is described variably as semi-nomadic, transhumant pastoralists, or agro-pastoralists. The Gaddis, usually men of the family, start on a migratory event in early April, gathering their goat and sheep herd and taking them to the high-altitude summer foraging grounds. These unbridled pastures, known as alpine meadows are called dhars. This seasonal movement is ingenious at various levels – it sustains the economy of a Gaddi household without being too reliant on agriculture. Further, Gaddi herds provide rich manure to the tilled lands across various agricultural landscapes they pass through and in return receive food and a place to camp; a barter system still in place. And this practice helps avoid low productivity foraging grounds without putting undue pressure on alpine pastures.

The shepherds pass through various towns and villages, as they start their journey from the low-lying areas of Kangra valley and plains of Pathankot, crossing the Dhauladhar mountain range towards Chamba district and travelling north towards the alpine pastures in the inner Himalaya. With them, on this arduous journey, are of course the livestock that they address as “Dhan” which also translates to money and wealth in Hindi. The sheep and goat herd constitute a flexible and continuous source of economic return for this community, especially when small land holdings do not allow for huge returns from agriculture. The flocks serve as a source of meat, milk, fleece and wool. The wool produced by Gaddi sheep is primarily used to make warm clothes, and is considered to be fine quality wool in a market where the quality dictates the price of the wool.

Himachal Pradesh State Wool Federation website displays the minimum support price (MSP) offered by the government for the sheared wool. Based on per kilogram price, the prices are lowest for the wool sheared in winter in the month of January-February, whereas the highest price is set for the wool that is sheared in autumn (in September or October), after the flocks have come down from the alpine pastures. The Gaddi shepherds I interviewed called this an ‘A’ grade wool. In their opinion, the nutritional forage available in the alpine pastures, which consists of medicinal herbs, shrubs, and vital grasses, contributes towards development of such fine and gregarious Gaddi wool.

Herds of sheep and goats return after grazing in the Dhar on the North-east of Kungti village; Photo Virendra Mathur
Courtesy: The H P State Coorperative Wool Procurement and Marketing Federation LImited (H P WOOLFED ) Shimla

Even more difficult than the journey to these pastures is living there. When I asked a Gaddi about the most important skill to survive in the alpine pastures, he simply stated that “You have to become an animal to live with an animal.” indicating the laborious life in alpine pastures. The arrival of Gaddi in the alpine pastures is met by receding snow, and below it lays the abundant grass to forage for the livestock/goat and sheep herd. These alpine pastures stretch till the horizon, vast carpets slowly turning green. Guiding herds in these alpine pastures is the least of their worry, the real challenge is to protect the herd from the harsh surroundings. The relationship of herd and the shepherd arises from mutual dependency, and for Gaddi men who remain away from their families, their herd is their family. The relationship of care is intertwined around wool – it transcends the material value and takes up emotional significance. It is the wool that earns shepherds the money, and it is this wool that comes back on the journey – laden on the back of a shepherd in the form of a blanket or a shawl.

They keep a portion of the sheared wool for themselves, and use it to manufacture clothing – their traditional attire, shawls and blankets, which keeps them warm and protected. When a lamb is born, it is wrapped around in this blanket and kept inside their camp, and on the long treks in alpine pastures, lambs and goat kids are carried wrapped inside the blankets. Each head counts in this family, and shepherds sometimes risk their lives for their flock. On two separate instances, a group of shepherds, at night, rescued their stranded goats from potential attack of a black bear, and on another day, Thaapu, a young apprentice jumped into a glacial stream, shattering the thick sheet of ice to rescue a sheep and a goat kid that fell while crossing the glacier. He said that a shepherd has to protect every head he is responsible for, as this proves his credibility to his employer. While the shepherds have adapted to the vagaries of nature, will their resilience fare them through impacts of climate change in the inner Himalaya?

In many ways, the life of a Gaddi shepherd and that of their flocks is interlaced with the seasonal changes in Himalayan pasture lands. Without knowing the term, the shepherds understand that their summer home is undergoing changes. Rainfall patterns have become erratic and it can impact the livelihood of Gaddi communities negatively. Abundant rain could lead to livestock mortality as the sheep contract various diseases in wet environments while less rainfall can delay the growth of grass and herbs in alpine pasture, as was the case this year. This is further worsened by foraging competition from large mountain ungulates; they informed me that a lot of problems has been caused by chur, commonly known as dZo across Himalaya (a magnificent cross between a yak and a cow). These large herbivores are domesticated by the villagers in high-altitude Himalayan communities for agriculture. These massive animals also graze in the alpine pastures, along with other ungulates like Himalayan Ibex and Himalayan Tahr, mules and horses. Large herbivores consume hefty amounts of fresh grown grass leaving only small patches for the sheep and goat herds, creating scarcity for Gaddi livestock. Similarly, the duration of grazing in the alpine pastures can also be cut short by erratic weather patterns, affecting growth of fresh grass and the productivity of alpine pastures in the long-term. A decrease in nutritional quality will in turn impact the quality of the wool produced by the sheep. 

Subhash Bhai and Sonu Bhai shear wool off their sheep. Shearing happens thrice a year, and while some herders use scissors, others use wool-trimmers for shearing the wool; Photo Virendra Mathur

Today, the market for natural wool is facing increased competition from synthetic wool supplies which has made market accessibility difficult for these shepherds. While the traditional usage of wool is facing a decline, partly due to absence of knowledge transfer across generation, partly due to the lucrative nature of cosmopolitan living, traders and craftsmen now tend to prefer using imported wool. In the face of emerging changes, proper management mechanisms can help survive traditional agro-pastoralism in high Himalaya. Gaddi shepherds who are in this vocation constitute a dynamic medium of cultural exchange and fulfill economic needs of various farming communities through their resource exchange. Thus, the gradual loss of transhumance in Himalaya interacts with the loss of natural cycles of nutrient cycling in high-altitude communities and might possibly have downstream effects.

First published by HimKatha – Spring 2021

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