In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pastures and Pastoralism

  • Introduction
  • Definitions and General Overviews
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Online Databases
  • Humankind and Pastoralism: A Historical Perspective
  • Ecology of Grazing Ecosystems
  • Pastoralism and Nature Conservation
  • Pastoralism and Environmental Conservation
  • Overgrazing
  • Economics of Pasture-Based Livestock Keeping

Ecology Pastures and Pastoralism
Nicolas Schoof, Rainer Luick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0207


Pastureland (synonymously grassland) is land devoted to the production of forage for harvest by grazing, cutting, or both—no matter if the plant species are indigenous or introduced. They can be natural (native), semi-natural (managed and dominated by indigenous and naturally occurring plant species), and there is a significant share of pastureland with introduced species. Land is named rangeland, if vegetation is predominantly grasses, grasslike plants, forbs, and shrubs and if it is used for the production of livestock and/or wildlife. Finally, a pasture is a concrete spatial area where farmers keep livestock. Here we understood pastoralism simply as the agricultural activity of animal husbandry, no matter if performed on pastures or without spatial restrictions (nomadism). Estimates of the proportion of the earth’s land area covered by grasslands vary between 20–40 percent, depending on the definition. Those differences are due to a lack of harmonization in definitions (see Allen, et al. 2011). The selecting influence of grazers is the main difference to other natural grasslands (e.g., those growing beside natural tree lines). Livestock-grazed grasslands are the most important share of grasslands and occur in all biomes. The prehistoric populations of megafauna had a significant impact on ecosystems in certain geographical areas. Browsing, grazing, or selective feeding by these various species prevented many open landscapes from succession, thus allowing adapted communities to evolve. That is why a high biodiversity, often with rare species assemblages, characterizes (semi-)natural pasturelands. Grazers can form a multitude of vegetation depending on time and frequency of grazing throughout the year, the (livestock-)species including various breeds and its density per land unit. Today, vast pasturelands are overgrazed, causing serious environmental damages. Although some native and semi-natural grasslands are productive, the agricultural increase of productivity can often be achieved by intensification (e.g., by fertilizing or seeding non-native species/breeds). Such “improved” pasturelands tend to be species-poor and provide fewer ecosystem services. In many parts of the world, wooded pastures (woodlands) are quite common, mostly in landscapes, where agricultural intensification is restricted by natural constraints. Here, grazers distinguish a light canopy of trees/shrubs often mixed with grass/herbaceous species on the ground. Some of these systems are extraordinarily important for nature and environmental conservation. Pastoralism was and still is an essential part of humankind’s culture worldwide. It is a cultural heritage and object of investigation for countless studies focusing on the role of livestock for societies.

Definitions and General Overviews

Allen, et al. 2011 provides a baseline for commonly agreed definitions on many terms in the scope of this library item (e.g., pasture); Dong, et al. 2016 defined precisely the meaning of pastoralism and provides an extensive overview about the characters of this land-use practice and its recent challenges. They also offer a profound insight into the socioeconomic structures of societies where pastoral land-use systems are still vital. Thornton 2010 addresses the situation and recent trends in livestock production worldwide. There are many sources providing overviews on different grazing management practices, which focus on continental, national, or regional aspects. Suttie, et al. 2005 is one of the few that delivers insights into grazing systems from a global perspective. Vallentine 2000 in form and content surpasses Suttie, et al. 2005 but focuses on North America. There are many publications covering subtopics, special regions or popular scientific issues of grazing management or livestock production. Ruechel 2006 offers a brilliant survey on sustainable cattle keeping and includes a bright collection of paintings. The huge quantity of references about grazers’ management is not surprising since modern humanity evolved closely with domesticated species. Clutton-Brock 1999 gives a detailed synopsis about the beginning of mammals breeding used for farming, pastoralism, and hunting around the world. Oppermann, et al. 2012 explains grazed semi-natural grasslands and the cultural heritage of grassland-based farming systems in thirty-five European countries. Vera 2000 is a masterpiece outlining the link of grazing ecology and ecosystems development in history, which is crucial to understand (potential) ecosystem services of grazing and grazed grasslands.

  • Allen, V. G., C. Batello, E. J. Berretta, et al. 2011. An international terminology for grazing lands and grazing animals. Grass and Forage Science 66.1 (March): 2–28.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2494.2010.00780.x

    The authors are members of the International Forage and Grazing Terminology Committee and offer harmonized definitions for several terms in focus, enabling a consistent understanding and use.

  • Clutton-Brock, J. 1999. A natural history of domesticated mammals. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Explores the beginning of the relationship of humankind and domesticated mammals across the world. It outlines the process and spread of domestication from a cultural as well as from a biological perspective known from archaeological research.

  • Dong, S., K. -S. Kassam, J. F. Tourrand, and R. B. Boon, eds. 2016. Building resilience of human-natural systems of pastoralism in the developing world: Interdisciplinary perspectives. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    This book has a global perspective and designates threats, challenges, and opportunities for sustainable pastoralism. It highlights the importance of pastoralism mainly from socioeconomic perspectives and aims to enable policymakers to find solutions for land-use practitioners.

  • Oppermann, R., G. Beaufoy, and G. Jones, eds. 2012. High nature value farming in Europe. Ubstadt-Weiher, Germany: Verlag Regionalkultur.

    Contains an anthology of grazed semi-natural grasslands and their farmers around Europe, focusing on their importance for nature conservation issues related to these ecosystems and the need for further conservation efforts. It is a sketch of grazing management in a living cultural heritage affected and often threatened by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy.

  • Ruechel, J. 2006. Grass-fed cattle: How to produce and market natural beef. North Adams, MA: Storey.

    Ruechel explains the ecosystem pasture and the ruminant cow in a brilliant way. The book is written not only for farmers who want to opt for organic grass-fed cattle keeping, but is worth to read for scientists, that want to get closer to practice. It is well structured, excellently visualized, and answers almost all questions pertaining to keeping cattle in a sustainable farm.

  • Suttie, J. M., S. G. Reynolds, C. Batello, and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, eds. 2005. Grasslands of the world. Plant production and protection series 34. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

    This publication by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States provides a vast overview of studies. In a final chapter on grassland perspectives, the book assesses the state of grasslands, their management, various grassland resources, the complementary roles of sown pastures, and fodder crops. It concludes by looking at social, economic, and environmental aspects such as tenure, markets, trade, herder organizations, community participations, and demotic factors.

  • Thornton, P. K. 2010. Livestock production: Recent trends, future prospects. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 365.1554 (27 September): 2853–2867.

    DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0134

    This work gives a brilliant overview on livestock production worldwide, embedding different dynamics to socioeconomic issues and historical developments. Thornton dares to forecast the state of livestock production in times of global change.

  • Vallentine, J. F. 2000. Grazing management. 2d ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Vallentine gives an overview about handling of livestock and grasslands with focus on North America. This work focuses on practical challenges of pastures such as nutrition supply and spatio-temporal management for an optimum livestock farming and ecosystem services. Also offers an excellent bibliography and all ecological background information necessary to understand grazing systems in total.

  • Vera, F. 2000. Grazing ecology and forest history. New York: CABI.

    DOI: 10.1079/9780851994420.0000

    Still the most important work challenging a scientific paradigm of closed forest in post-glacial, prehistoric times. Vera interprets palynological and paleoecological findings against the background of a more herbivorous formed, open landscape. This work is crucial for understanding grassland ecosystems and grazer-dependent co-evolution of a vast number of species, giving essential hints for nature conservation especially for Europe and North America.

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