5000 Mile Project: Shoots of recovery in Patagonia after a century of over-grazing

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If you were to consider man’s impact on the natural world, it would perhaps begin with industrialization. Hot-footed in its path would follow a tangle of pollution, booming populations, intensive agriculture and over-consumption.
During the past 700 miles of our 5000mileproject odyssey (5000mileproject.org), we’ve steadily been running north from the southerly most tip of continental South America, a wild and remote region of the planet. A place one would consider relatively protected from this ‘humanoid’ onslaught? In reality, ‘Where there is a road, there is a way’.
Although evidence of man is less, there are still plastic bottles and bags flowering by the roadside, corrugated houses spawn from towns, forests are cut for firewood and construction. Man and his collection of apparent necessities look more or less the same as anywhere else in the world.
But something else is happening. Something that on first glance your eyes may not perceive. Something of a more insidious nature. This wild icy land of Patagonia is stealthily undergoing a transformation. Hundreds, thousands, millions of teeth are nibbling: semi-deserts, grass-shrub steppe, shrub-grass steppe, grass steppe and woodland. All these subtle gradations of Patagonia, stretching from the vast backbone of the Andes to the Pacific and the Atlantic are under attack from the least likely of villains: the fluffy sheep and doe-eyed cow.
The problem is we are not talking the odd cow or sheep. Not the 100 head of sheep or cattle of the Devon farmers I used to advise on wildlife management. No. Think flocks and herds extending into the sunset. In 2010, Argentina reported 55 million head of cattle and 16 million head of sheep.
All this noshing results in one outcome: over-grazing. There hasn’t been a day we’ve run where we haven’t cursed ‘OVER-GRAZING!’. It feels that with every footfall we’re stepping back into the dusty pages of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. And as history repeats, so clouds of soil take to the air as the fierce Patagonian winds batter our bodies.
The numbers are certainly damaging, a study by Del Valle (1998) estimated that 65% of Patagonia was seriously degraded, 17 % moderately degraded and only 9 % lightly affected. In no area was grazing impact negligible. “But what about guanacos?” They graze the steppe too, perhaps this problem has been present for longer than we think? The difference is that Patagonian vegetation has evolved with the light grazing of species such as guanacos. It is not adapted to sustain the remorseless grazing of domestic ungulates. Soil structures change and their capacity to hold water and nutrients declines. What results is the preferential grazing of tasty vegetation, leaving a moonscape of unpalatable patchy low scrub in a sea of sandy soil.
Yet when speaking to local people down here, over-grazing or sobre pastoreo is seldom associated with the land or a reason for decreasing meat and wool yields. Perhaps a result of ‘creeping normality’? Perhaps the inability to imagine another way? Or perhaps it is just imperceptible if you’re not looking for it?
A local Patagonian woman recalled with dewy-eyes an era when sheep stretched 360 degrees. How families and their livestock flourished. Two burly Argentinians insisted we join them in their make-shift shed. Mutton chops sizzled on their home-made BBQ. A gaucho arrived on his horse. Together they lamented the presence of guanacos, seeing the native mammals as purely fodder and water competition to livestock, whose sole use was for dog food. A Darwin’s rhea, a large flightless bird and a relative of the ostrich, sat rotting in a heap of beautiful downy feathers. This ‘chicken Goliath’ is similarly persecuted.
As we ran north guanacos fled at the merest sniff of us. A Darwin’s rhea pounded along the roadside fence, sporadically hurling itself into it in a desperate attempt to flee our steps. On one 10 km stretch of road we counted 150 guanaco carcasses. The uneasy relationship with wildlife and domestic animals continues to play out as it does throughout the world.
Then on Wednesday 26 September, almost two months after we began our expedition, we arrived at Conservacion Patagonia’s (CP) Valle Chacubuco. And something weird happened, the guanacos stood and stared at us. One even came over to check out the latest two-legged mammals on the block!
During the past seven years in which this colossal estancia of around 78,000 hectares has been gradually reverted into a wildlife haven, the guanacos and flocks of upland-geese have gradually forgotten to associate man with death. The grassland is being restored through reseeding and naturally through the removal of the 25,000 head of sheep, 3000 cattle and 1,000 horses that roamed the land in 2004. The southern beech woodlands of lenga and ňirre are collectively sighing.
Some of the local gauchos whose lives revolve around sheep or cattle (breakfast, lunch and dinner) view the changes with incomprehension. One woman I spoke to spat; ‘the area’s a breeding ground for pumas’, the ’sheep hunters’. But with guanacos comes food for pumas, as CP gaucho Luigi explained. While Jorge, who has worked on the estancia for over 20 years in both its capacities, points at how the grasses and herbs are returning. He motions to areas that were formally ‘brown’ and are now licked green.
Patagonia has recently been included as a world ‘Centre of Plant Diversity’ due to nearly 30% of endemic vegetation, plants that grow nowhere else in the world. CP’s landscape scale restoration of this incredible piece of Patagonia will ensure a refuge for some of those species and for critically endangered animals such as the native deer, guanaco, Darwin’s rhea, the Patagonian armadillo, puma, Andean condors and mountain vizcacha.
Please help us ensure the revival and restoration of this incredible national park in the making and donate. 



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