In rural Patagonia there are still transhumant herders, who travel along traditional routes with their flocks up to 200 km between winter and summer feeding grounds, accompanied by their families and sometimes even the children’s school teacher, as well as family owned ‘establecimientos,’ or sheep operations. But goats and sheep, if left unchecked can destroy habitat and decades of overgrazing and an increasingly drier climate have made it more difficult for herders to survive and for ranchers to stay solvent threatening their livelihoods and culture. In addition, competition for habitat, forage and water by livestock and native wildlife like rheas and guanacos, has grown over time as climate change and overgrazing have altered the grasslands of the Patagonian Steppe.
The most conspicuous—and once most dominant—species of the Patagonian steppe ecosystem are two large-bodied herbivores, the guanaco and the Darwin’s or Lesser rhea, a large, flightless bird, endemic to Patagonia and the Andean puna. There are no estimates of previous rhea population sizes, but like the guanaco, they are known to have declined drastically in some parts of Patagonia during the last 20 years with hunting, egg collection and overgrazing being the biggest threats.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), working with herders and ranchers in Patagonia, has found that local, mixed-breed dogs can work very well to deter predation and stop herders from killing carnivores. They are inexpensive to obtain and keep, and are adapted to local conditions.
In addition, people need an alternative to make a better living off of fewer goats and sheep. In turn, this will help habitat to recover, and reduce competition and conflict with wildlife.
In Northern Patagonia, the local goat is a unique breed that evolved from the Spanish stock brought here over 100 years ago. It was recently discovered that this breed in northern Patagonia produces a fine undercoat of cashmere. Unlike in other parts of the world, where demand for cashmere has led to overstocking of goats, destruction of habitat, and reduction of wildlife, in Patagonia, goats are already living on the edge, and quality cashmere can only be produced through better, sustainable management of flocks. The supply of this fine fiber will always be limited.
The Merino wool is produced by the “Merino de Península Valdés” (MPV) association of ranchers, many of whom are from families which have been producing wool for between 50-100 years on Península Valdés, a 4,000 km2 protected area in eastern Patagonia, declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 1999. Although a management plan has been effective in conserving the coastal wildlife on Península Valdés, the land is privately owned and extensive sheep ranching for wool production is widespread across most of the 50 properties located in the area. As Península Valdés is under IUCN category VI (protected area with managed resources), the implementation of a management plan including programs for the coexistence of sustainable livestock production and healthy wildlife populations is desirable and efforts towards this end have earned the association the Wildlife Friendly® Certification for the merino wool.
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The Cashmere with a Conscience program and the Grupo Costa del Rio Colorado earned Wildlife Friendly® certification in 2012.The MPV group producing merino wool on Península Valdés was formed in June 2014 after the ranchers met with the WCS and the Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina (FVSA), two non-profit, non-Government organizations, which have been monitoring wildlife population across the Península Valdés, seeking to develop a sustainable livestock strategy for the area. Both WCS and FVSA believe that sheep ranching and healthy wildlife populations can coexist in Península Valdés by promoting sustainable use of the range, improving habitat for wildlife, and in doing so, human livelihoods.
Herders and ranchers who coexist with Guanacos and agree to manage their flicks sustainably, receive Wildlife Friendly® certification of their cashmere and merino wool. These fine fibers contribute to preserving wildlife habitat, sustainable livelihoods, and a way of life.
Patagonian Steppe Program, Wildlife Conservation Society – Argentina
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Merino de Península Valdés
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