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What Canada Can Learn From Swedish Dairy Farmers

10/05/2014 07:28 EDT | Updated 12/05/2014 05:59 EST

"Restoring just 12 per cent of the world's degraded agricultural land could feed 200 million people by 2030, while also strengthening climate resilience and reducing emissions." (N.C.E Report 8:2014)

The New Climate Economy Report, hot off the press, must be one of most well written, exciting documents of this decade. One focus is the global importance of slowing down detrimental land use change like deforestation. At the recent UN Climate Summit, the statement was: "United Nations share the vision of slowing, halting, and reversing global forest loss while simultaneously enhancing food security for all."

What could we do in Canada to protect our mountain forests from detrimental land use changes, increase their cultural value and slowly lessen some dependence on agricultural land?

In Europe mountains have gained attention for cultural and natural heritage values they offer in addition to resources. While mountains in Canada have profound cultural value for aboriginal populations, they are often viewed as places for recreation, or a factory churning out primary resources.

The Swedish system of 'forest pasturing' for dairy farmers could inspire Canadians to benefit from mountains in a way that's cultural, economical and decreases demand for agricultural land.

Like Canada, Sweden has a rich boreal forest abounding in tree buds, mires, swamps and herbs. A special breed of cattle has been used in the Swedish transhumance system in mountainous areas since the Iron Ages, it is claimed. In 1993 the breed was almost extinct but now there are approximately 250 farmers practicing the Swedish transhumance system called 'fabodar'. This breed named Scandinavian Mountain Cattle, are brought to forests in mountains in the summer where there is a hut for the custodian and family and shelter for the animals, normally without electricity or services.

For Canadian industrial dairy farmers 'free-range forest pasturing' could seem impossible. In fact the Scandinavian Mountain Cattle have special characteristics, evolved over the millennia, making them suitable for mountain life. Obviously they have an advanced ability to forage. Interestingly they also return home by themselves, or when called. This is free-range pasturing with no fences, nor even shepherd dogs. A study done by C. Eriksson in Pastoralism Research, Policy and Practice describes it thus:

"Free-range forest pasturing is based on being able to control animal behaviour, as the cows are expected to return home every night by themselves, so a lot of time is invested in creating emotional bonds with the cows." (Eriksson, 2011)

Eriksson studied the strong emotional bonds between farmers and their mountain dairy cattle. Part of the symbiosis is due to the herd size, normally about 30 cattle, but farmers also cited the particular intelligence and gentleness of these animals. They expressed great respect for this breed. For example, Eriksson discovered the cattle form what farmers call 'kindergartens'. Each day before going into the forest a different cow or bull stays behind at the forest hut with all the young calves that can't yet walk distances. The meat is said to have a richer flavour, although the cows are rarely killed, and the milk is said to have a fuller, deeper taste than lowland milk, due to the diverse fodder they consume.

One problem however is that these cows have a penchant for hallucinogenic mushrooms which they are apparently skilled at finding in the forest. This makes them loose all track of space and time and they get lost or return home late...

But there is a more serious problem. Bears and wolves are also abundant in Swedish mountains. Strangely bears seem not to bother the mountain cattle. Wolves are a hazard. Wolf protection in Sweden has created contention and controversy with the 'fabodar'.

Yet the benefits are clear. Forest pasturing significantly assists biodiversity and mountain summer 'farms' have become important for tourism. In this way mountains can be enjoyed sustainably and less agricultural or pastureland is required.

Could Scandinavian Mountain Cattle find free-range forest homes in some of Canada's mountains?