Herding is the practice of caring for roaming groups of livestock over a large area. Herding developed about 10,000 years ago, as prehistoric hunters domesticated wild animals such as sheep and goats. Hunters learned that by controlling animals they once pursued, they could have reliable sources of meat, milk and milk products, and hides for tents and clothing.

Many animals naturally live and travel together in groups called herds. Goats, sheep, and llamas, for instance, live in herds as a form of protection. They move from one fertile grassland to another without an organized direction.

Predators such as lions, wolves, and coyotes pose major risks to domestic herds. Herders have traditionally provided protection for the animals. Herders also keep the herd together and guide it toward the most fertile grassland.

Herders often specialize in a particular type of livestock. Shepherds, for instance, herd and tend to flocks of sheep. Goatherds tend to goats, and swineherds to pigs and hogs.

Herders who tend to cattle were once called cowherds. Most cowherds are now known as cowboys. In Australia and New Zealand, cowboys are called jackaroos and jillaroos. In Latin America, they are known as vaqueros.

Herders often use herding dogs to help them tend their herd. Herding dogs have been bred to respond to the whistle or other commands of the herder. They keep a herd of sheep, goats, or cattle together. Herding dogs, such as kelpies and koolies, can also guide herds through dangerous terrain. Herding dogs are so skilled and efficient that they often participate in competitions. At these competitions, called trials, herding dogs move animals around an enclosure, through a series of fences and gates.

Larger dogs are often used by herders as livestock guardian dogs. These dogs, such as Great Pyrenees, have been bred to protect herds, usually sheep and goats, from predators such as wolves and coyotes. In Africa, livestock guardian dogs such as Anatolians protect domestic herds from lions and cheetahs.

Herding often takes place in transition zones, where land is not fertile enough for intensive farming. Animals can live on the forage of these grasslands, while people cannot.

Nomadic Herding

There are several different types of herding. One of the most ancient forms of herding is nomadic herding. Nomadic herders roam in small tribal or extended family groups and have no home base. Nomads live in arid and semiarid parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and in the tundra regions of Asia and Europe.

In Africa, nomads herd cattle, goats, sheep, and camels. In the tundra, they usually herd domesticated reindeer. Other animals managed by nomadic herders include horses, musk-oxen, and yaks. For many nomads, their herds provide meat, milk, and hides for their own use, as well as for trade.

Nomadic herding is sometimes considered a form of subsistence agriculture. It actually is not. Subsistence farmers grow and harvest crops mostly for their immediate family and community. Unlike subsistence farmers, herders are traditionally wage-earners: They sell their herds’ materials for goods and services, or herd other people’s animals for a fee. Often, this trade is part of the informal economy—not accounted for by the government of a region. In Africa, the United Nations estimates that herders are responsible for more than $100 million in economic activity every year.

The Fulani people of Nigeria have long been nomadic herders. They move with their cattle from one grazing area to another. The cattle feed on scrub and grasses in land unsuitable for farming. The Fulani rely on cattle for milk, but rarely slaughter the animals for meat.

Nomadic herding as a way of life is declining because of natural disasters such as droughts, loss of land area due to development and degradation, and pressure from governments to lead a settled existence.

Semi-Nomadic Herding

Semi-nomadic herders live a more settled life than nomads, but still follow their herds for long periods of time. Millions of Mongolians, for example, have been semi-nomadic herders for thousands of years. They traditionally herd sheep, goats, horses, and Bactrian camels. Today, about a quarter of Mongolia’s population continues to live a semi-nomadic herding lifestyle.

Semi-nomadic herders can be associated with invasions. The Mongol leader Genghis Khan conquered almost all of Asia by uniting various nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes in the 1200s. Their familiarity with vast tracks of land, and living in sparse conditions for long periods of time, made these herders ideally suited to moving across varied terrain.

The Sami are semi-nomadic herders indigenous to the Arctic. They live throughout northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and on the Kola Peninsula of Russia. For centuries, the Sami have herded reindeer as a principal means of livelihood, supplemented by fishing and trapping.

Development has made it difficult for semi-nomadic herders to sustain their traditional way of life. State and national borders, for example, have divided traditional Sami land. Industries like timber and mining have reduced grazing land. Today, some laws exist to protect the Sami and their rights to use the land, but conflicts still exist.

Transhumance

Another type of herding is called transhumance. Transhumance herders follow a seasonal migration pattern, usually moving to cool highlands in the summer and warmer lowlands in the winter. Unlike nomads, these herders move between the same two locations, where they have permanent settlements.

Transhumance has had an enormous impact on the landscape. In the European Alps, for instance, thousands of years of transhumance have transformed foothill forests into alpine pastures. Swiss and German herders traditionally led sheep, cattle, and pigs to pastures at elevations above 2,000 meters (6,562 feet).

Transhumance in the Alps actually involved three herding grounds. The village floor, at the lowest elevation, was where livestock were kept sheltered during the cold and snowy winter months. Shepherds led herds to the middle pastures during the spring. During the summer and fall, shepherds led sheep and cattle to the high alpine pastures, while pigs stayed in the middle area.

Transhumance is still widely practiced throughout agricultural communities in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia.

The Kirghiz horsemen of Central Asia used to migrate between regions of eastern Afghanistan, western China, and southern Tajikistan with their herds of goats, yaks, and camels. They would spend their winters in the lower valleys of China or Tajikistan, moving to high mountain grasslands in the summer.

When China restricted its borders to travelers, the Kirghiz transhumance herders lost the ability to summer in Chinese mountain valleys. While some Kirghiz have settled into sedentary lives in other regions, a small group still upholds their traditional lifestyle in the remote, austere Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan.

Ranches

Most large-scale livestock herds today live on ranches. Ranching involves raising livestock on a single, large tract of land. Ranches are common in Australia and New Zealand, the western United States, Argentina, and Brazil. Ranchers don’t migrate the way nomadic or transhumance herders do.

However, throughout most of the 1800s, ranchers in the United States set their cattle and sheep loose to roam the prairie as herds. Most of the grazing land was owned by the government, not individual ranchers. This was the so-called “open range.” Twice a year, cowboys would round up cattle for branding (in spring) and for gathering for sale (in autumn). Round-ups are still a part of ranching culture, but livestock now roam on private land.

Herding and Land Use

Herders maintain complex maps of the area where their herds graze. These maps include seasonal weather patterns; partnerships or conflicts with other herders, ranchers, or landowners; and soil quality. Herders can be excellent resources for data about the agricultural fertility of an area.

A herder’s vast knowledge is threatened by the pressure to conform to modern society. Permanent residence allows members of a community to have access to education and health care facilities. It also affords members a greater choice in their professional and personal lives.

However, the complex social structure of herding communities is lost as they are absorbed into mainstream culture. Unique language and customs become outdated and not useful in settled urban or suburban life.

The Bedouin people of the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, for example, are almost entirely semi-nomadic and settled. Prior to the 20th century, Bedouins were mostly nomads, herding sheep and goats. A series of droughts in the 1960s throughout Western Asia limited fertile areas. Oil production in Egypt and Saudi Arabia further limited land available for grazing.

More importantly, however, Bedouins sought a better standard of living. Schools, health-care facilities, law enforcement, and social opportunities are usually greater in settled areas than through herding lifestyles.

herding

People have been herding this rare breed of sheep (piebald or Jacob sheep) for thousands of years.

Herd of Herds
Not all groups of animals are herds. Here are the group names of some animals that are regularly herded.

  • a raft of ducks
  • a gaggle of geese
  • a flock of sheep
  • a mob of cattle (Australia)

Good Shepherds
Herders are traditional symbols for many religious traditions.

God, in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, is referred to as the Good Shepherd. These religions grew out of herding culture in the Levant, where good shepherds were understood to keep their herds safe and unified.

One of the avatars of Krishna, an important Hindu deity, is Govinda. Govinda is a cowherd, the traditional occupation of a young man. Govinda is one of the youngest incarnations of Krishna, associated with love and fertility.

The Ox Herder is a traditional Zen Buddhist parable. In it, the path to spiritual enlightenment is compared to a herders search for his missing ox.

Thatll Do, Pig
Unlike the fictional Babe, real pigs are not herding animals! The commands used in the movie, however, are realistic. Here are some more:

  • "by", "come by" or "go by"=move clockwise around the herd—by the clock
  • "way" or "away"=move counter-clockwise around the herd
  • "look back"=return for a lost or missed animal
  • "that'll do"=stop work and return to the herder
absorb
Verb

to soak up.

alpine
Adjective

having to do with mountains.

Noun

region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

arid
Adjective

dry.

austere
Adjective

severe, simple, or lacking in luxury.

barbed wire
Noun

twisted metal with sharpened points, often used for fences.

Bedouin
noun, adjective

people and culture native to the Arabian Peninsula, Middle East, and North Africa.

Noun

natural or artificial line separating two pieces of land.

branding
Noun

marketing or sales process that creates a unique reputation for a product.

breed
Verb

to produce offspring.

cattle
Noun

cows and oxen.

complex
Adjective

complicated.

conform
Verb

to comply or act according to the accepted standard.

conquer
Verb

to overcome an enemy or obstacle.

cowboy
Noun

person who herds cattle on a ranch, usually on a horse.

Noun

agricultural produce.

custom
Noun

a way of doing things that has been handed down from one generation to the next.

data
Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

degradation
Noun

breaking down.

development
Noun

construction or preparation of land for housing, industry, or agriculture.

domesticate
Verb

to tame or adapt for human use.

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

economic
Adjective

having to do with money.

education
Noun

process of acquiring knowledge and critical-thinking skills.

efficient
Adjective

performing a task with skill and minimal waste.

Noun

height above or below sea level.

enclosure
Noun

area surrounded by a wall, fence, or other physical boundary.

enormous
Adjective

very large.

familiar
Adjective

well-known.

farming
Noun

the art, science, and business of cultivating the land for growing crops.

fee
Noun

price or cost.

fertile
Adjective

able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.

foothill
Noun

hill at the base of a mountain.

forage
Noun

fodder, or food for horses or cattle.

forest
Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

Fulani
noun, adjective

nomadic herders of northern Nigeria. Also known as the Fula.

Genghis Khan
Noun

(1162-1227) founder of the Mongol empire.

goatherd
Noun

herder who tends to goats.

government
Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

grass
Noun

type of plant with narrow leaves.

grassland
Noun

ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

harvest
Noun

the gathering and collection of crops, including both plants and animals.

health care
Noun

system for addressing the physical health of a population.

herd
Noun

group of animals.

herder
Noun

person who controls and takes responsibility for a group of animals such as sheep, cattle, or horses.

Noun

practice of caring for roaming groups of livestock over a large area.

herding dog
Noun

dog bred to keep a herd of livestock safe and together.

hide
Noun

leather skin of an animal.

highlands
Plural Noun

plateau or elevated region of land.

homestead
Noun

area of land including a dwelling and any outbuildings, such as barns.

Adjective

characteristic to or of a specific place.

informal economy
Noun

exchange of goods and services where taxes are not paid to the government, or services are illegal, such as drugs. Also called the black market.

jackaroo
Noun

Australian cowboy.

jillaroo
Noun

Australian cowgirl.

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

language
Noun

set of sounds, gestures, or symbols that allows people to communicate.

Latin America
Noun

South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

Levant
Noun

area bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea, including the nations of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.

livelihood
Noun

ability to economically support oneself.

livestock
noun, plural noun

animals raised for sale and profit.

livestock guardian dog
Noun

dog bred to protect livestock herds from predators.

lowland
Noun

slow-flowing river ecosystem usually found in lower altitudes.

Noun

symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

meat
Noun

animal flesh eaten as food.

migrate
Verb

to move from one place or activity to another.

migration pattern
Noun

predictable movements, in time and space, of a group of animals or people.

milk
Noun

white liquid produced by female mammals to feed their young.

mining
Noun

process of extracting ore from the Earth.

natural disaster
Noun

an event occurring naturally that has large-scale effects on the environment and people, such as a volcano, earthquake, or hurricane.

nomadic
Adjective

having to do with a way of life lacking permanent settlement.

oil
Noun

fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.

open range
Noun

large area owned by the government where many owners' livestock may graze, usually referring to the situation in the late 1800s in the western United States.

outdated
Adjective

no longer useful.

overgrazing
Noun

process of too many animals feeding on one area of pasture or grassland.

pasture
Noun

type of agricultural land used for grazing livestock.

Noun

large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.

predator
Noun

animal that hunts other animals for food.

prehistoric
Adjective

period of time that occurred before the invention of written records.

principal
Adjective

leading or dominant.

ranch
Noun

large farm on which livestock are raised.

Noun

practice of raising livestock for human use, such as food or clothing.

Noun

any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

reliable
Adjective

dependable or consistent.

roam
Verb

to wander or travel over a wide area without a specific destination.

round-up
Noun

gathering of all the livestock on a ranch. Also called a muster.

Sami
Noun

people and culture native to northern Scandinavia.

savanna
Noun

type of tropical grassland with scattered trees.

scrub
Noun

area of arid grassland covered with low-lying trees and bushes.

seasonal
Adjective

likely to change with the seasons.

sedentary
Adjective

staying in one place.

semiarid climate
Noun

(dry climate) region that receives between 25 and 50 centimeters (10-20 inches) of rainfall every year.

semi-nomadic
Adjective

people or communities who follow their food source for long periods of time, but can also live settled lives.

settlement
Noun

community or village.

shepherd
Noun

herder who tends to sheep.

slaughter
Verb

to kill and butcher an animal for food.

soil
Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

sparse
Adjective

scattered and few in number.

stalk
Verb

to pursue or approach prey or an enemy.

subsistence agriculture
Noun

type of agriculture in which farmers grow crops or raise livestock for personal consumption, not sale.

suburb
Noun

geographic area, mostly residential, just outside the borders of an urban area.

supplement
Verb

to increase or add to.

swineherd
Noun

hearder who tends to pigs and hogs.

terrain
Noun

topographic features of an area.

timber
Noun

wood in an unfinished form, either trees or logs.

trade
Noun

buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.

transhumance
Noun

seasonal migration of livestock and herders between warm valleys and cool foothills.

transition zone
Noun

area between two natural or artificial regions.

tribe
Noun

community made of one or several family groups sharing a common culture.

tundra
Noun

cold, treeless region in Arctic and Antarctic climates.

unique
Adjective

one of a kind.

United Nations
Noun

international organization that works for peace, security and cooperation.

urban
Adjective

having to do with city life.

valley
Noun

depression in the Earth between hills.

vaquero
Noun

Latin American cowboy.

vast
Adjective

huge and spread out.

wage
Noun

money or goods traded for work or service performed.

Wakhan Corridor
Noun

area of northeastern Afghanistan that borders China.

water rights
Plural Noun

right of a consumer (person, business, or government) to use water from a specific source. Sometimes, water rights include the amount of water a consumer is allowed to use.

weather pattern
Noun

repeating or predictable changes in the Earth's atmosphere, such as winds, precipitation, and temperatures.