Cultural landscapes - regional identities and sustainable husbandry in highland ecosystems

Gebhard Aschenbrenner,

Austrian Board of Agricultural Engineering and Rural Development, Vienna

Some scientists say that the traditional forms of living and husbandry in the mountainous regions in Austria are at end. Furthermore, and as a consequence our traditional cultural landscapes are endangered due to the new and lower product prices. In Austria, compensatory income has reached a level of 70 % of the total income. To verify the situation, seven typical regions were chosen for a field study. Two of these seven regions were studied over the last two years to show the operational importance of grassland and pastures (St. Veit and Rauris, Schneeberg).

The farms in question were chosen by local authorities, i.e. the agricultural chambers, the farmers union and local informants.

Results of a study in the region of St. Veit and Rauris in the federal county of Salzburg

Their sizes are between 5 and 130 ha, including forests and the high mountain pastures. The grasslands - to be cut one time or two times or to be pastured - are between 5 and 31 ha with an average of 14 ha. Most of the farmers are members of a high mountain pasture co-operative.

Stocking rates are between 0.86 and 1.9 livestock units/ha are kept, not taking into account high mountain pastures.

The typical farm is a grassland farm with "Pinzgau" dairy cattle bred on the farm. In the past they were occasionally crossed with Friesians. The second important breed beside the Pinzgauer Rind is the Red Spotted Highland. Dairy cattle is no longer turned out to high altitude pastures during summer, as today extremely few high maintain pastures are managed permanently. Only young cattle are still grazed, though without regular care, even if losses have to be accepted. The bull-calves are sold when their weight is about 50 to 100 kilograms. The current subsidy-system gives incentives to dairy cattle grazing, and high-pasture milk is excluded from quotas. Nevertheless, this way of life has a high personal cost. Many farmers even cannot afford regular maintenance. A strikingly large number still have heirs.

In areas where the transport of the milk has been difficult over a longer period, which has resulted in low delivery quotas, pedigree cattle are common. Before Austria's entry into the EU, freight rates were fully taken in charge by the dairies, whereas today distant farms are discriminated.

In the areas studied there are mainly part-time farmers with additional income through a second profession or farm holidays. Although there is tourism, the distance to the population centres is too great for direct marketing, but the dairy products like butter and cheese are sold to the farm holiday guests. Meat is sold to the local restaurants though new regulations impede slaughtering on the farm. Direct selling brings higher benefits if working time is not taken into account.

There are two reasons why most of the farms are cultivated organically. First of all the conversion from conventional to organic farming meant no great difference because few working materials like fertilisers used to be bought in addition. On the other hand government subsidies for organic farming are attractive in Austria. (So Austria has the highest rate of organic farmers in the EU and - next to France - even the highest number of organic farmers in the EU!). Please note that in Austria every organic farm is regularly checked by officially certified associations. These associations have different aims and standards.

Although about thirty years ago, many farms in the region of the "Hohen Tauern" were specialised in goat breeding (spotted goats, the "Tauernschecken"), today a very restricted number are left. As this old goat breed has a small genetic base, it is seriously in danger of extinction. Abrasion of the animal's hooves is vital for their well-being. This is why they depend on rocky pastures which are usually found in the highest parts of the mountains. These high altitude meadows have been abandoned to hunters for about twenty years which has resulted in an invasion of scrub. This has adversely affected conditions for the ibex and made hunting difficult as well. The ibex are now utilising the lower pastures. Hunters now want the meadows in the highest regions to be well cared for again. This example shows a balance of interests which may be found between different groups of land users. Some farmers still are authorised to graze their cattle in neighbouring forests. This has contrasting effects: on the one hand, trees may be damaged, on the other hand the grazing has resulted in a specific plant community developing. It is of great importance to keep grass on the steepest and highest meadows short to prevent soil erosion, because if snow freezes to long grass it risks to carry the soil along when sliding downwards.

Austrian farmers are said to be over-mechanised. This assertion could not be confirmed for the farms investigated. The machinery comprised a large share of old but well maintained vehicles and tools. There is specialised machinery with great cross-country mobility and low soil pressure which is essential for sustainable farming. As these machines are expensive because of their low number, they are often used in common although they are not common property.

In St. Veit and Rauris used to be rotation of arable and grassland up to the early sixties. Since the mid-sixties grassland largely prevailed as - due to obsolete machinery and costly production methods - working the fields became more expensive than buying feed. Naturally, this phenomenon first started in the very exposed areas, but gradually grain was abandoned altogether in high altitudes. The grasslands are mown two times a year; they are fertilised almost exclusively with solid and liquid organic manure. In some cases liquid manure may engender increased growth of sorrel (Rumex obtusifolia) which can prove especially problematic under organic farming conditions as herbicides are not allowed. For economic reasons farmers often use sawdust for bedding, which stimulates the growth of graminaceous plants.

Results of a study in the region of Schneeberg in the federal county of Lower Austria

In the past a native race, the so-called "Murboden-Rasse", was common. Due to epidemics (tuberculosis, brucellosis) a slow change towards the Red Spotted Highland took place. Whereas some ten years ago the Murboden-Rasse could still be found in the region, today it has vanished.

Some 15 years ago 80 dairy farms were counted in the municipality of Puchberg. Today there are 45. Before selling their dairy cattle, farmers often keep suckler cows for some time.

The number of the traditionally held oxen - 40 year ago they were more important than dairy cattle - has dramatically dropped as a consequence of meat price cuttings. A new programme introduced by the farmers themselves is to guarantee that their oxen have grazed at least two summers on high mountain pastures and thus get a higher price for higher meat quality.

The stabling of cattle during bad weather is becoming less common, as the change from the warm and wet atmosphere in the stables to the cooler atmosphere outside increases the frequency of pneumonia. The animals do not suffer when they stay outside in cold weather.

Steep and out-of-the-way meadows are forested. Others are mown to serve as ski-runs; levellings are noticeable and the effects of artificial snow is contested.

Thirty years ago, arable crops were common in 700 m altitude. Today they are restricted to the valleys. Until 20 years ago artificial fertiliser was regularly applied to fields and meadows.

Due to a less favourable economic situation compared to Rauris and St. Veit few farmers have heirs.

Hay market

The ÖKL initiated and promoted a hay exchange in the Wienerwald-area near to Vienna. These small meadows excel through their high biodiversity, which is endangered by social fallowing. Orchids and other valuable plants depend on regular mowing. This professionally organised hay exchange co-ordinates supply and demand. The customers - mainly the numerous riding stables in the outskirts of Vienna - can choose their preferred hay (mown early or late or rich with herbs f. ex.). A new trademark, the "Wienerwald Heu" has been established. A linked feed analysis laboratory is responsible for quality controls. A welcome side-effect is to impede long-distance hay importation from the bordering Slovakia.


Dairies so far neglected the field of school-milk. This is why throughout Austria dairy farmers commonly invest in the machinery they need to pasteurise their milk according to regulations. Some co-operatives produce yoghurt and other products. They stress their valuable part in maintaining the traditional landscape and sort of offer it together with their products.


As a final conclusion I would like to quote Lord Sewell, Minister of Agriculture of Scotland, who recently put it this way: "But I do want a countryside where people earn a living." This statement is equally valid for Austria.