Science Book a Day Interviews Fred Provenza and Michel Meuret


Special thanks to Fred Provenza and Michel Meuret for answering 5 questions about the book they edited together which was recently featured – The Art & Science of Shepherding: Tapping the Wisdom of French Herders

Fred Provenza is from Colorado, where he worked on a ranch near Salida while earning a bachelor of science in wildlife biology from Colorado State University. Upon receiving his degree in 1973, he became ranch manager. He and his wife Sue left the ranch in 1975 so he could work as a research assistant and technician at Utah State University, where he earned MS and PhD degrees. He was a professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University from 1982 to 2009. He is now professor emeritus, and he and his wife are living once again in the mountains of Colorado. Fred’s efforts led to the formation in 2001 of an international network of scientists and land managers from five continents. That consortium, known as BEHAVE (, integrates behavioral principles and processes with local knowledge to foster healthy relationships among soil, plants, herbivores, and people as social, economic, and ecological environments ever transform. We no longer view organisms, including ourselves, as machines and genes as destiny but learn to work with behavioral relationships to create opportunities as environments ever transform. Fred has received numerous awards for research, teaching, and mentoring. These awards represent the productivity that flowed from warm personal and professional relationships with over seventy-five graduate students, post-doctoral students, visiting scientists, and colleagues he worked with during the past thirty-five years. – Adapted from

Michel Meuret obtained degrees in agronomy and ecology from Brussels University in 1983. The French National Institute for Agricultural Research, INRA, was interested in his innovative scientific approach and methodological developments for measuring food intake on forested rangeland and proposed that he join a research staff in southern France that was studying the use of livestock grazing to prevent wildfires in Mediterranean forests and scrublands. In 2012 he joined Sup Agro agronomy school at Montpellier as consultant professor. From the beginning, Michel’s research has been conducted in communities with family farmers and herders. Working also with social scientists, he focused on the experiential know-how and practices that positively impact feeding motivation in domestic herbivores on rangeland. Michel is regularly asked by farmers, herders, and nature conservationists to teach and promote debates on herding techniques. On several occasions, Michel has been invited to present his experience in the United States and other countries that are intrigued by the unique French experiences of nature-friendly shepherding. Michel now serves as a director of research at INRA. – Adapted from

#1 – What was the impetus for The Art and Science of Shepherding? What does the ‘art’ refer to?

FP – Please see the introductory chapter to the book, where we discuss the impetus for the book. The art refers to taking principles and applying them to situations that each differ in time and space, the uniquely creative part of managing animals and land.

#2 – How do older ways of shepherding inform the more modern ‘scientific’ practice of farming?

FP – In the case of French shepherds, there is no “older ways of shepherding” as they have been lost in time. The shepherds nowadays have been self-taught, as we discuss in the book.

MM – There are five herding schools in France, but they are not teaching how to herd animals. Indeed, both experienced herders and school teachers are convinced: this cannot be learned from a blackboard. Trainees learn by going to work for a season with an experienced herder, as tutor.

I can add also than what you’re calling « older ways of shepherding » cannot be applied today, because landscape composition changed (a lot of wooded rangeland took place), size of flocks also changed (from 100-200 to 1,500-2000 sheep each), land-use has also changed, with a lot of other people using mountains for recreation, etc. not including nature and biodiversity conservation rules that impact on where and when grazing can take place.

#3 – Your book has many interviews with master shepherds. How did you come to interact with them? Were they what you expected?

MM – We came to interact with master shepherds in different conditions and situations. Sometimes (i.e. with Andre Leroy) it was during a week-end hike in mountains, not at all prepared, we talked on the side of the track… and then we worked for 5 yrs together. With some others, we used our connections with herders’ associations (kind of like unions, but not political). In other cases, we’ve been informed by young herders, former trainees in herding schools, and they told us: ‘YOU MUST see that (highly experienced) guy, (or girl)!’

You know, France is a small country. If, as a researcher from a public institution (i.e. you are selling nothing to farmers and herders…but ideas..for free), you come to be known by the fact that you are doing research to avoid caricaturing their skills, not trying also to normalize their knowledge by some new land-policy rules about « how to graze into the mountains and hills », in other words: you respect their knowledge and practices and you mostly try to ensure their skills are much better recognized as something technical and relevant for current agricultural and environmental concerns. If so … doors of many shepherds’ cabins will be wide open for you.

But we are not in Disneyland either. I spent …several years, working to achieve that (I’ve started in the ‘80s). Most of herders in France are highly doubtful about what a researcher can understand after putting his nose into their cabin and pasture (I think they are quite right about this – see our chapter #1).

#4 – How does shepherding benefit the environment more than modern western methods?

FP – Shepherding is nuanced in ways that modern methods of grazing, even management-intensive types of grazing, are not. Shepherding requires knowledge of how to blend different vegetation types (sectors) across a landscape in ways that achieve use of all plants, not just the most ‘palatable’ subsets of plants.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

FP – Yes, I am helping a Canadian author on a book about how understanding diet selection in herbivores can inform diet selection — for better or worse in the cases of foods people eat — in people. That book will be published by Simon & Schuster early in 2015.

MM – Yes, me too: I am finishing a book (which will be published in 2015) with Vinciane Despret, philosopher and professor in ethology and psychology about « How do sheep learn what the herders are teaching them? » (i.e. what is edible or not, what is palatable or not, what is the work of the herder, what is a herding dog, etc). I cannot summarize that here. It deals with « animal culture » related to peoples’ culture and skills in working with domestic animals.


Unfortunately (for you and some others), this book will be first published …in French.

[Image Credit: ]
[Image Credit: Supplied by Author ]