Empowering Locals, Main Stories, Stories, WORKING WITH SHEPHERDS

How did sheep become a threat to the nature?

Article main imageOvergrazing resulted in a difficult ecological condition for Chachuna Managed Reserve. Land degradation and destruction of the gallery forests of the Iori River Valley may destroy the unique biodiversity of Chachuna Managed Reserve.

  • Do you know what is the most enjoyable part in this case? It is when you open materials captured by the camera trap and you don’t know in advance what you will find inside.
  • And what was in it that made you happy the most?
  • It is Lynx. There has not been any evidence of its existence in Chachuna MR so far. Thus, we did lose any hope to see it.

A camera trap caught the lynx in Chachuna Managed Reserve for the first time this year; just shortly after the Society for Nature Conservation – SABUKO had launched the project Restoring Gallery Forest and Grasslands in the Iori River Valley on the territory of the Managed Reserve and its buffer zones. The project addresses various environmental and social issues, but they all serve the common purpose  – to preserve the Managed Reserve area from overgrazing and land degradation; to establish rotational grazing, to restore gallery forests of the Iori river valley and therefore, to preserve the unique biodiversity of Chachuna. 

Zurab Gurgenidze is the Research Officer in SABUKO and he is responsible for studying and monitoring animal and bird species. For this purpose, up to 50 photo traps have been already installed in Chachuna Managed Reserve and outside areas. Initially, SABUKO arrived here for the first time several years ago to study the population of the endangered predator – Eastern Imperial Eagle. Though, during the working process, it was identified that the land degradation, caused by overgrazing may result in extinction of rare species of many animals and birds in the future. Furthermore, the gallery forest of the Iori river valley can also be destroyed and in addition to that, in line with the environment to put into danger the shepherds, for whom the pastures of Chachuna Managed Reserve is an important source for the sheep feeding.

Chachuna Managed Reserve was established in 1996. Though, before that the hunting farms had been operating there since the 1960s and black francolin, wild boar and gazelle had been actively hunted.

5200 hectares belong to Dedoplistskaro Municipality, which is located in the extreme South-western part of the country at the Georgia-Azerbaijan border. The managed Reserve is characterized by heterogeneous terrain and landscape. Expansive meadows, over Taribana valley are soon replaced by arid light forests and fragmented hills of step plants, typical for semi-desert areas; sandstone (sandy loam) and different from the area landscape – gallery forest are replaced by species, typical for Tugai forests, such as: white poplar, common oak and Caucasian hackberry – included in the ‘’Red List of Georgia. Eastern Imperial Eagle and francolin from non-predators, found only on these areas, are using these gallery forests for nesting. In addition, this forest is an important shelter for wolf, jackal, jungle cat and badger”.

Apart from the border checkpoints, the Rangers’ residence is the only building in summer where humans can be seen. During the daytime, there are only two Rangers there, who are responsible for the protection of the Managed Reserve area. Vasil Baghashvili and Gia Sepiashvili are colleagues. At 6 o’clock in the morning they divide the area and one of them goes for patrolling downwards, into the floodplain and another is headed to the opposite side.

Rare and endangered species of animals/birds are still hunted and poaching again is a problem for Chachuna Managed Reserve, but Vasil and Gia are more concerned with the problem related to pastures and gallery forests of the Iori river valley as of today.

For decades, tens of thousands of sheep from Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kakheti and other regions are hosted by the Managed Reserve.

There are about 32 farms in Chachuna and number of sheep in each varies between 600 – 4000. However, there are farmers with 6000 sheep distributed over 1200 ha area. They also have hundreds of cattle: cows, horses ….. The part of pastures belongs to traditional zones, but the most part of the land has been leased since 1990s. Some of them are managed by the farmers who owned them and the part of them are rented out. ‘’The land renting practice increases the negative impact even more, as shepherds, in order to save money, make far more sheep to graze in small areas, beyond its capacity’’ – explains Natia Javakhishvili, Director of SABUKO.

The most difficult thing is to get the sheep on the other side of the river for water consumption. As the infrastructure of the most farmers is out of order and disorganized, they don’t have water consumption spots as well. Therefore, they take the sheep at least once a day at the river Iori and to do this, some herd travel 3-4 km daily and apart from damaging land cover on their way, they destroy gallery forests as well.

“If it were winter now and we were sitting there, at least ten herds would have come and go daily’’ – Vasili tells me and explains, that when lambing begins, shepherds take ewe and ram  for water consumption separately and pressure over land and forest increases respectively.

Protection of the gallery forest from sheep herd is the part of Vasili’s and Gia’s responsibility. Sheep grazing in the forest is prohibited by the Law on Protected Areas and relevant administrative penalty is imposed. Though, the Rangers are concerned with small amount of the penalty and therefore, ineffectiveness of control.

“There are two main problems. During the daytime it is very difficult for two Rangers to control such a huge area and chase after all herds. But not considering our hard work, if we catch in the very act we draw up administrative penalty and impose up to 50 GEL as the penalty to the farmer for such a huge flock of sheep.

Let’s take a look at it from their perspective; when I am the owner of 3000 sheep flock, why it is not worthy for me to pay 50 GEL and in return, to feed my sheep in the gallery forest? Isn’t the mentioned above the better option than buying barley in addition and make such expenses?’’  – The Ranger, Gia Sepiashvili was asking me and added, that the best solution will be to impose penalty according to number of sheep: ‘’If we impose 1000 GEL on 1000 sheep, it would be a big amount for them and they will not take their flock into the gallery forest.’’

Aleksandre Mikeladze is the Manager of SABUKO project: ‘’Restoring Gallery Forest and Grasslands in the Iori River valley’’. He believes that making the penalties stricter could not stand as the uniquely efficient way for solving this problem. He said that in general, it may lead many owners to abandon the pastoral tradition and increased fine still remain a social pressure and do not change much in their behaviour.’’

“Therefore, we have to face the problem in more systematic way. We and other NGOs couldn’t always be in such critical places. The state needs to admit this problem and have an unambiguous policy, first of all, in terms of registration and study of pastures; on the other hand, it is necessary to introduce practice for rational use of pastures. Such approach will be right one from an environmental standpoint and beneficial for shepherds as well – if there is enough grass on their pastures, they do not have to break the law.’’

What threat do the sheep impose to gallery forest?

We stopped the car above the river and were walking up to the left bank of the river Iori. At first glance, eroded and lifeless soil is clearly visible. Though, as we approach the river, we saw that the green cover gradually disappears and eroded and cracked land cover is replaced by smaller eroded ravines with remained semi-dried plants, growing on the dried soil.

‘’Do you see this greenery? It’s not even like this in winter, but is completely rammed dawn and there is no grass at all’’ – Zurab Gurgenidze tells me and points out at plants growing here or there at the river bank.

In order to reduce scale of the access road to the river and therefore, to decrease land degradation, SABUKO arranged so called funnel shaped corridors for the access to the river.

‘’Sheep could no longer walk loosely and will be restricted within a certain limited area. The rest of the area will be saved from degradation. I guarantee you, that if this funnel is not broken by force and sheep are not allowed in, you will not recognize this place after 4 years’’ – Amiran Kodiashvili, the local consultant of SABUKO is with us, who is actively involved in the project of restoration and conservation of gallery forest. At the local level, he is responsible for the arrangement and functionality of these corridors. What he likes most of all in the idea of arrangement of these corridors is that sheep will no longer be able to enter gallery forest.

 ‘’I have often heard saying: How sheep can harm by grazing grass in the gallery forest. It is an extremely thoughtless phrase. The sheep grazes not only grass, but also all seedlings of trees/plants, which forms the gallery forest and the gallery forest on its turn is the source of life for the Managed Reserve. Therefore, if we lose it, we have to realise that agricultural lands will soon disappear as well.

However, the source of the problem for Amiran Kodiashvili is the question – Why does a shepherd take the sheep to the gallery forest? The answer to this question leads to the pasture resources. That is why everything is interconnected. Of course, the sheep gets there due to shortage of food. There are no grass on the pastures, resources are running out…’’

Why is there a shortage of grass on the pastures and what are the causes of desertification?

During the Soviet times, more than 2 million sheep were registered in Georgia and part of them used adjacent lands to Caspian Sea for winter pastures. Since 1990, Georgia lost its access to those pastures. According to GEOSTAT data for 2018, number of sheep in Georgia, compared to the above mentioned period, has decreased by 40%. Though, the load on pastures has increased and negative impact on them, respectively. Despite the reduction of the number of sheep, shepherds distributed sheep herds only on small areas in Georgia. Overgrazed fields poses serious environmental and social threats.

The load on pastures in Dedoplistskaro has also increased after 1990s, since the shepherds no longer used Kizlari winter pastures. About 50 000 head of sheep gather each season in Dedoplistskaro alone.

Due to climate change, the annual rainfall in the municipality is already falling below 400 mm. The average duration of the drought period increased from 54 days up to 72 days, the soil got depleted, water resources were reduced. Due to mention above, the unique vegetation cover is getting lost. The environment is sensitive toward such impact and along by the natural one, easily gets affected by human impact.

In 2019, SABUKO conducted pilot researches on one of the pastures in order to study soil and vegetation cover and developed relevant recommendations for the Agency of Protected Areas. The purpose of this study, except for seeing the current situation, was to introduce a rotational grazing system on pastures. Rotational or alternate grazing means dividing pastures into plots and moving and grazing sheep alternately on these plots.

The study revealed that 26% of 750 ha area were slightly degraded, 25% – moderately, 20% – strongly, 18% – significantly and 11% of the soil is completely lifeless. The Soil without degradation wasn’t included in the classification, as researchers couldn’t find such land cover.

The capacity of each pasture was calculated based on the area, in order to determine certain days for pastures. It should be considered, that restoration period and increase rates depend on many variables, such as season, climate, vegetation cover, livestock feed ration, and maximum number of heads of sheep per hectare. “Considering the mentioned above, the most reasonable solution will be if the land owners and shepherds balance the grazing and recovery periods together’’ – is written in the Action Plan.

Natia Javakhishvili, the Director of SABUKO explains on the map the reason this territory was selected for the survey: ‘’Chachuna Managed Reserve is divided into fragments and that is very bad for the protected areas. These areas above are privately owned pastures, the lands below are also the property of the same land owner and in the middle – approximately 750 ha is the protected area. Belonging to no one and to everyone at the same time as while taking sheep to the river, they have to cross the protected areas.’’

Therefore, the Organization has decided to introduce rotational grazing system right here and to continue observation according to the seasons. However, due to change in the land status, the process took a time. Therefore, SABUKO developed new plan and started working with the owners of pastures located next to the same area.

First of all, water consumption spots for sheep and water well was arranged for an owner of the pasture with the approximately 900 ha area. Due to these arrangements, sheep herd is less likely to drink water from the Iori River.

After that, Resources Manager of SABUKO, Marinus Gebhardt spent approximately 2 months in the farm and after working with the sheep owners, introduces a rotational grazing system there.

Natia Javakhishvili tells me, that initially they didn’t even think of working with the private land owners and it seemed hard to persuade them: “However, as we allocated certain resources by arranging water consumption spots for sheep, we actually saved their labour and at the next stage communication with them turned out to be easy.”

It is true that the Action Plan was developed based on scientific research and offers scheme for rotational grazing; depending on soil condition, it defines number of heads of sheep per 1 ha, etc. However, according to the Director of SABUKO, the most relevant approach is to search for intermediate principles and to consider pasture specifications: “Activities cannot be held on pastures according to the written plan only. It is necessary to find a common language with farmers and to reconcile these ideas. We were listening to shepherds and giving their ideas the right direction.’’

However, beyond such private initiatives and projects the effective continuation of the project for Natia and in general for SABUKO will be introduction of systemic policy and practice by the state.

Javakhishvili says that at the same time SABUKO is trying to cooperate with state bodies and is continuously advocating the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture. The Organization has developed a document that outlines the legal framework.

The study of legislation revealed the main gaps that are failing to ensure sustainable management of pastures. First of all, there is no law available in the country that will directly address the regulation of pasture management; that is why the regulations are scattered in various normative acts. However, bodies responsible for enforcement, are not defined by some normative acts, or these norms apply to only high mountainous regions and at the same time, some regulations are outdated and irrelevant.

For example, the Law on Soil Protection (1994) defines introduction of pasture alternation, so called rotation. However, it only applies to high mountainous pastures and could not be spread over the pastures, such as Chachuna Managed Reserve.

What is the attitude of the state regarding pasture management and desertification?

The position of the Ministry is that the pasture management policy document will be developed soon, which will be a precondition for the development of legislation. The Agency of Land Management, established in 2018 is already working on land calculation and categorization.

Gizo Chelidze is the Head of Primary Structural Unit of Hydro Melioration and Land Management Department of the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture. Difficulties to understand the exact position of the Ministry regarding pasture management and land degradation, as legislative gaps result in general and sometimes vague responses, but Gizo Chelidze confesses that the country needs legal norms for direct management of pastures:

“In this regard, with the support of the Global Environmental Fund we have already started working on the project, which will allow us to work on the pasture management policy document and it will be the precondition for the legislation’’ – As Gizo Chelidze explains, this law will determine the way pastures should be preserved, who will be responsible for it and what mechanisms need to be introduced.

The answer to the following question – whether the mechanisms such as: e.g. rotational grazing system and other activities against desertification are used or not – Chelidze responded that it would be regulated by law and the Ministry will establish the best practice for it:

“The law is not a Panacea!  We must possess strong ways for prevention as well and at the same time we should raise awareness of the locals’’ – that is the position of the representative of the Ministry.

Meanwhile, they talk about the need of more food for sheep in Chachuna Managed Reserve: “Last year there was no grass at all. There is a farm nearby and I am telling you, that a farmer there used 14 tons of barley and brought cabbage as well for feeding the sheep. I have no idea what will happen this year’’ – Vasili, the Ranger told me while leaving his residence. He has been guarding the territory of the Chachuna Managed Reserve for exactly 17 years. While leaving his residence, he makes Zurab Gurgenidze a promise to bring a printed photo of the lynx upon his next arrival and afterwards, returns to his work.