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The Tratturo

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Mario and Vanessa lead the sheep along a tratturo

In addition to learning about sheep, shepherding, cheese-making, working farm dogs, and horses, Vanessa and I have been introduced to one of Italy’s most ancient signs of human activity: the Tratturo.

Shepherding in Italy dates to prehistory, and before barns and hay were used to shelter and feed sheep in the winter months it was necessary for the shepherd to migrate with the herd in search of food. In the winter shepherds would descend from the mountains in Abruzzo, central Italy, crossing Molise to the warmer plains of Puglia in the south. As summer heats climbed and the grasses scorched, shepherds would return with their flocks to the cooler northern mountains. The shepherds and their flocks used the tratturos as their passageways. They were massive grassy paths, at times as much as 110 meters wide, the soil compacted from centuries of migrating feet and hooves. There were three main tratturos (the Regio tratturo L’Aquila Foggia, the Regio Tratturo Val di Sangro Foggia, and the Regio Tratturo Pescasseroli Candela), which, when combined with shorter tratturos and the connective branches called tratturellos, formed a route that extended roughly 1,860 kilometers.

The tratturos were used by the Samnites, the ancient inhabitants of southern Italy, who most likely inherited them from prehistory, and in addition to being passageways for migrating shepherds and flocks were also the roads for soldiers and merchants. It has been hypothesized that the great Roman road system may have been at least partially built on top of some already-existing tratturos. The tratturos have been so well worn into the earth that many still exist. We use them to transport Mario and Carmella’s 260 sheep to different fields.

We are some of the only people and animals left to trace those steps of antiquity.

Vanessa and I, dressed in traditional shepherd garb, with Pietro, Mario and Carmella’s son, at a “Save the Tratturo” rally in Campobasso, Molise. The parade landed us on Molise’s regional television news program.

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