A new economic base for the Gulp Valley herd

In the valley of the river Gulp it is still possible to meet a shepherd with his herd. This shepherd and his herd represent a cultural heritage and ecological value. But for whom? And would it be possible to have these stakeholders pay, in order to preserve the shepherded herd? The Science Shop took up this question on request of Stichting Schaapscompagnie Mergelland.

The Schaapscompagnie Mergelland is a foundation that aims to support shepherding in the Mergelland area and the preservation of the traditional Mergelland breed of sheep. Scientists and students contacted citizens, businesses and land holders in Zuid-Limburg to find out what are their stakes in relation to the herd and if and how they would be willing to contribute to its sustenance. Goal is to arrive at a ‘social contract’, in which stakeholders agree with each other on their contributions.

Shepherding for ages has belonged to the Zuid-Limburg landscape of hills and slopes. In the past, it yielded manure for the arable fields on the hilltops, and in the present it delivers natural and cultural heritage in the form of biodiverse calcareous grasslands and a local breed of Mergelland sheep. In the Gulp valley, the State Forest Service has involved a herd of this breed of the sheep farm Schaapskooi Mergelland in the management of grasslands. The farm pays a fee for the use of the land. Until recently, a special government subsidy was available for shepherded grazing, but it was terminated.  As a result, the costs of the herd are much higher for the sheep farm than the revenues, and the preservation of the herd is at risk.

When the government no longer pays for the ecosystem services that are delivered by the herd (including biodiversity, cultural heritage, landscape experience, spiritual value, inspiration), who will? In this study we made an inventory of the stakes of the State Forest Service, businesses in the tourism and recreation sector, and other stakeholders.  Reasoned from theory, it is understandable why it is so difficult to have stakeholders other than governments pay for this kind of collective ecosystem services.  What could work is an agreement between the main stakeholders and the sheep farm about services delivered, compensation and the distribution of costs. Some ideas were developed in this study and the interactions with stakeholders, but this did not yet lead to a new social contract. One of the reasons for this is that the sheep farm is not the only business in the area delivering ecosystem services. Various other farmers and land holders also contribute to landscape quality. Therefore, a social contract should comprise a larger area with many more ‘providers’ and ‘beneficiaries’ of ecosystem services; a complex, but worthwhile endeavour.

Fortunately, analysis of farm economy and the management arrangement of the Gulpdal lands delivered a number of options that could contribute to an economically sustainable solution for the herd. Based on the good ecological results in the grasslands, the management subsidy that the State Forest Department receives from the Province can be raised. As a consequence, the fee paid by the farmer can be lowered. In addition, changes in the Common Agricultural Policy now allow the farmer to apply for income support connected to the grasslands.

For other herds in the country this study has not yet delivered solutions. Shepherding is often applied on moors and fields of heather: the agricultural subsidies do not apply there. For that reason, the Dutch Parliament has requested the government to arrange more support for shepherding, because of the ecosystem services supplied.