Evaluating local foraging resources in Italy using remote sensing and productivity modelling.

In the Italian Alps, the use of mountain pastures and traditional pastoral methods is on the decline. Researchers at the University of Milan are studying traditional alpine pastoralism and investigating circularity in this system.


Increased and improved use of pastoral land can promote a more sustainable meat production, minimising the reliance on synthetic fertiliser and imported feed. Additionally, it contributes to enhanced animal health and welfare. The utilization of pastoral land is also crucial for maintaining threatened alpine grassland ecosystems. Unfortunately, nearly twenty percent of permanent grasslands in Italy have been lost in the last fifteen years, reflecting a longer-term trend of pastoral land abandonment.


Machine learning classification techniques combine information from optical and radar satellite imagery with topographic data. The outcome of this are detailed land-cover maps identifying vegetation and productivity-related pasture types, and changes in a specific area’s landscape over time. 


Eugenio Carlon, a research fellow at the University of Milan, explains, 

“By creating historical land-cover cartographies, we can infer how many pastures were lost and which surfaces may still be reclaimed or requalified, helping us understand the forage production potential of the region.”

Land-cover map of the vegetational classes of the high- mid- Camonica Valley (Val Camonica, Italy), with a focus on rangeland and productivity-related pasture types. Illustration made by Eugenio Carlon.

Historical and up-to-date land cover map reveal land-cover changes

The case study, which is taking place in the community of Val Camonica the Rhaetian Alps of North-Western Lombardy, Italy, covers around 715 km2.


“Our land-cover analysis indicates that productive pastoral surfaces have been replaced or fragmented by increased tree and shrubland cover. This is likely due to a lack of grazing and pasture management combined with the effects of climate warming. Today, the majority of remaining pastoral land consists of lower productivity types, while rich pastures are particularly scarce and fragmented,” says Carlon.


Farmers in the region are being interviewed to assess the effective demand of local farms. The purpose is to identify opportunities and barriers to promote a better management of existing pastures and the restoration of abandoned areas, thus valorising local foraging resources in supporting the local zootechnical sector.


“Integrating land cover data with landscape-level models that simulate pastures and meadows productivity, along with farm data on forage demand and use, will help us understand what measures can be implemented to encourage a return to increased use of local high quality foraging resources,” says Francesco Pietro Fava. He is an associate professor at the University of Milan and leader of the research team working on this study together with Carlon.


Cow on pasture in the Italian Alps. Photo: Eugenio Carlon
Cow on pasture in the Italian Alps. Photo: Eugenio Carlon

Targeting decision makers with information about circular pastoral practices

Ultimately, the study aims to create a realistic image of the state of the regional alpine pastoral land-use. Potential changes aimed at enhancing the sustainability and circularity of farms will be evaluated. A major objective of this study is to directly target land-use decision-making oriented towards circularity.


“Traditional pastoral practices have played an important role in the maintenance of mountain grassland ecosystems, which are essential components of the climate change-threatened Alpine landscapes. Innovative technologies and practices need to be co-designed with local stakeholders, to support the integration of this immense knowledge into management models that bring back young generations to high mountain environments. Then we can valorise their ecological and productive potential,” says Fava.


The study will be finalized in September 2024 and will be one of the deliverables in the CircAgric-GHG-project.

Schematic diagram of E. Carlon and F. Fava Val Camonica case study, evaluating the potential and productivity of local foraging resources, against the effective demand of the zootechnical sector. The research team at the University of Milan is working in contact with the Mountain Community of Val Camonica (the case study region), as well as UNIMONT (The Alpine branch of the University of Milan).

By: Anette Tjomsland Spilling

Published 08.05.24