Farmers need more and more extra food for feeding their sheep on winter pastures of Chachuna Managed Reserve in Dedoplistskaro. Climate change and overgrazing are the main causes of pasture degradation – say field experts. It is believed that the environment here will be protected from desertification by controlling the number of sheep on the pastures and by rotational grazing.
February is a difficult time for shepherds. At the end of the month, the ‘’Doli’’ begins. This is how lambing period is called. The ewe needs attention day and night; the shepherds should be by their side while lambing so that the newborn lamb does not suffocate.
It is 6 o’clock. The morning is frosty and foggy in the Chachuna Managed Reserve. The dogs start barking at one of the farms. The shepherds are already awoken. After early breakfast, the shepherds must take the flock to the pasture. The part of them stays to feed the pregnant ewes.
“Come here, let me show you the twins,” Gia Javakhishvili, one of the shepherds calls us and while accompanying us to the farm, helps one more ewe to give a birth on the way.
Chachuna Managed Reserve is 50 km away from the Dedoplistskaro Municipal Center, along the Iori River Gallery forests. 5032 ha of land represent protected areas. There are about 35 farms located around, where for decades, Georgian and Azerbaijani farmers from various villages of Kakheti have been utilizing these territories to winter around 50,000 sheep each year. Shepherds arrive in late November and move to the mountains on summer pastures in May.
Giorgi Javakhishvili is a young farmer from Sagarejo. He lives in the village of Kakabeti. He was still a child when his father first took him to the farm. His father, Teimuraz with the nickname Osia, is one of the oldest shepherds here. The family has been in this business for over 25 years. The Javakhishvilis have 3,000 sheep spread on a 650-hectare of pasture. They have two large farms. One at the beginning of the Managed Reserve and the other near the gallery forest of the river Iori.
When I ask Giorgi whether he likes his next generation to follow the family tradition, he firmly answers that he does not advise his children to do the same: “I prefer them to do something else. It is hard work, from year to year there is less grass here and feeding sheep is expensive for us. “
This year, Giorgi has already bought barley worth 10,000 GEL due to the lack of grass and says that he will need the same amount again until May: “Last year I spent 20,000 to feed the sheep well. There is no more grass, every year we encounter a worse situation than before. “
Although, according to GeoStat data for 2018, the number of sheep in Georgia has decreased by 40% after the Soviet era, the load in pastures has increased significantly. Despite the reduced number of sheep, the shepherds distributed the livestock only in small areas in Georgia. In addition to that, a large part of the pasture is leased by the state to individuals who then lease the land at a much higher price to other farmers. For this reason, farmers often try to save on lease – prefer to lease less land to graze more than allowed.
In 2019, Society for Nature Conservation – SABUKO conducted a pilot study on soil and vegetation of 750 ha in Chachuna Managed Reserve. The study was the part of an ongoing project aimed at protecting and restoring the Iori river valleys.
We found out from the surveys that 26% of the area was slightly degraded, 25% moderately, 20% – severely, 18% – significantly, and 11% of the soil – completely. Soil that is not degraded could not be the part of the classification because researchers could not find such.
The pasture load norms established in Soviet times recommended grazing of 2-3 adult sheep on 1 ha area. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when shepherds living in Georgia lost access to the winter pastures of Kizlyar, the flocks were fully redistributed to the pastures of Dedoplistskaro. Consequently, the pressures on soil increased and in 2007, for example, when recommendations for grazing were developed for traditional use zones and protected areas, a maximum of 2 sheep per hectare were allowed to graze.
However, overgrazing in case of small pastures in Chachuna is a common practice today, and according to SABUKO representatives, sometimes 5-6 sheep per hectare is identified.
In addition, sheep watering is also difficult. The infrastructure is mostly underdeveloped and most farms do not even have watering spots. Therefore, sheep are taken to the river at least once a day. To do this, some herds travel about three or four km a day, destroying gallery forest as well as the soil cover. Iori river valleys are protected areas where sheep grazing is prohibited by law and is punishable by relevant administrative law. However, the penalty is miserably small, e.g. 50 GEL and sometimes it is worth paying by the farm owners to let sheep graze in the gallery forest.
Therefore, Tinatin Arveladze, the Policy Manager at SABUKO says that it is critical that a shepherd himself understands the threats related to biodiversity by grazing, while on the other hand, the state should have the relevant and effective tools to prevent livestock from entering the gallery forest.
Based on the research of 2019, SABUKO found out that most of the study area is eroded and decided to choose one of the most efficient way considered in many countries to combat desertification and introduced a rotational grazing system to farmers.
What is rotational grazing? – It means resting the pasture for certain time that the vegetation can be restored and renew natural processes. Periods of restoration and growth rates depend on various factors such as: season, climate, vegetation, maximum limit of sheep per hectare. Therefore, landowners and shepherds need to balance grazing and regeneration periods.
Marinus Gebhardt is a Resource Manager at SABUKO. In 2019-2020, he spent two winter seasons with the shepherds in the Chachuna Managed Reserve. Gaining trust took time, however, he explains to me that in general, such activities should be based on mutual interest. Communication is difficult until this interest arises: “For the first time, I started working alone in their area. I wanted the shepherds to see what I was doing and ask questions to me after which they wondered what we were going to do. The downside of this process is that it takes a time to gain trust, but still it is achievable, it just takes effort and patience. ”
After some waiting period and two months of field work, SABUKO developed a map of the Chachuna Managed Reserve and submitted recommendations in pasture management to the Agency of Protected Areas. To solve problems related to sheep watering, wells were organized right at the farmers, and corridors were arranged in cooperation with the Agency of Protected Areas near the gallery forest, which sheep often entered and threatened the existing ecosystem. At the same time, with the help of Marinus, SABUKO started cooperation with farmers Teimuraz Javakhishvili and his son, Giorgi.
Father and son own two farms in Chachuna and have a flock of 3,000 sheep on about 630 hectares of land. The farms are far apart, in the middle of which is an area owned by the Agency of Protected Areas. For years, this pasture has been used by Javakhishvili family as it is strategically close to their lands. Therefore, when SABUKO started working with the farmer to introduce rotational grazing, the attention was driven on the pastures owned by Javakhishvili family and on the nearby land owned by the Agency. In total, rotational grazing started on more than 600 ha of land in 2019.
At the same time, SABUKO applied to the Agency of Protected Areas with the request to officially hand over the pasture they owned to the farmer Teimuraz Javakhishvili:
“This land was recommended to be leased to a nearby farmer who would connect it to his farm and graze sheep in a larger area as it would be profitable for the shepherd and would not hinder our work as well” said Alex Mikeladze, the Project Manager of Restoring Gallery Forest and Grasslands in the Iori River Valley at SABUKO.
However, most recently, in February 2021, by the decision of Dedoplistskaro Municipality with the approval of the Agency of Protected Areas, the 750 ha of pasture was leased to two other locals for a 5-year period.
Toma Dekanoidze, Deputy Chairman of the Agency of Protected Areas, explains that in this case, the Agency lacks the opportunity to decide to whom the land will be transferred. The law states that the municipality reaches the APAs and submits information about a local individual willing to take a pasture for a lease. The person must meet several criteria, including owning of livestock and having a pasture management plan. The plan considers environmental measures such as: determining the number of sheep per hectare; restricting grazing in areas where the soil is eroded; also, the requirement of rotational grazing introduction, etc. If farmers do not follow the plan, after some warnings and fines, the APAs have the right to terminate the lease agreement.
However, when asked why the pasture could not be handed over to the person next to whom the mentioned land was located and where the farmer had already introduced rotational grazing, Dekanoidze said that the law instructs that local resources have to be used by a person registered in the same municipality. The agency operates based on the following principle:
“If we follow a principle of justice, the starting point of the APAs is to take into account, environmental, social and then economic factors. Speaking about social aspects, the person to whom the land is leased must be local and that is, the local must receive benefits from it. In my opinion, SABUKO was in a bit of a hurry and did not take these factors into account when requesting transfer of land to another person, in this case, a resident of Sagarejo. “
Tinatin Arveladze, the Policy Manager at SABUKO, considers that the Agency of Protected Areas in its decision-making process followed only a formal, bureaucratic procedure and did not take into account the broader content, including the question of how well this pasture will be managed under the new owners.
“Farmer Teimuraz Javakhishvili has been working in Chachuna for decades and only because he is not registered in Dedoplistskaro, he lost the opportunity of taking this pasture for a lease. This is the problematic issue for me that the APAs follows the law too narrowly and in this case, did not take into account the broader context. The agency could say that this pasture is located between two pastures owned by one farmer and it would be much more useful for him to use it. “
Accordingly, Arveladze says that in such a case the agency should make a careful decision and take into account the risks to which potential tenants will be faced by using the land sustainably:
“The second question refers to the monitoring process. There are frequent cases in Chachuna Managed reserve when the lessor rents the land with more expensive price than the other person and in fact, he does not even have livestock. A person who is taking a pasture for a lease is not really interested in taking care of the condition of the pasture. The third person usually has less perception that he has to take care of the land. So I’m a bit skeptic as how this process can be handed in a right way.’’
In parallel with these legal proceedings, shepherd Giorgi Javakhishvili has his concerns, who also hoped that the above mentioned pasture would be handed over to their families and that feeding the sheep in larger area would not be so difficult any more:
“We agreed on rotational grazing and we did it in a right way last year and the year before. It was easy as the area was large. But now on 650 ha it will be impossible. There is no grass. Shall I kill the sheep?!”
Buying barley and hay, he says, makes this business unprofitable. At the same time, in the socio-economic research conducted by SABUKO shepherds are talking more and more about the problems related to sales.
Teimuraz and other farmers go to Ninotsminda from May, where they make cottage cheese, cheese and Matsoni. However, according to the study, these products are primarily for personal consumption and are not intended to be sold in grocery stores or farmers markets. Dairy production is expensive and they cannot get funding for its production even from the banks by taking loans, because on the one hand, there are high interest rates, and on the other hand, it is difficult to prove farmers’ credibility to the bank.
Most of the shepherds also do not shear sheep: “the cost for 1 kg of wool is 1 GEL when wool can be sold for only 30 tetri.”
On average, 13 shepherds work with Giorgi Javakhishvili before the start of “Doli”. From the end of February, this number increases, because giving birth to a sheep requires more labor and effort. Shepherds are paid about 1000 GEL.
Alex Mikeladze, a representative of SABUKO says that a new study conducted in 2021 also showed that some shepherds do not stay even for the whole season and that the salary for them is not acceptable. Therefore, farmers have to work harder and periodically look for the shepherds.
Finally, most shepherds consider live sheep for sale, ranging in price from 190 GEL to 220 GEL. The sheep are mainly sold in the local market of Ninotsminda to the Iranians and are difficult to sell as sales mainly depend on a limited number of buyers.
This is hindered by the fact that the sales process is chaotic and sometimes does not involve the practice of collective purchase: “Considering these costs, keeping one sheep used to cost an average of 80 GEL, now that we buy extra hay and barley due to lack of grass, of course, expenses are increasing and profits are decreasing”, said Giorgi Javakhishvili.
Despite Giorgi’s pessimistic attitude, the research done by SABUKO has shown us one important thing, says Alex Mikeladze and explains that initially, when they started working with farmers, everyone denied the need to properly determine the number of sheep or limit that number; They did not link this to a lack of resources and, in fact, did not perceive these financial issues in a single system:
“After our research, they became more aware how much they spend. Therefore, I think this process will make us think even more thoroughly about the environment, as well as the socio-economic future of the shepherds. On the one hand, reducing the number of sheep sounds bad for the farmers themselves, but it may bring more profit to the farmers if the state supports the right approaches for the sale of the value added production”.
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