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Tuscany: Just don’t call them cowboys

We buckle up in the vineyard-covered hills of Tuscany

Tuscany: Just don’t call them cowboys
Butteri cowboys at a ranching tournament, Canale Monterano

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Think of Tuscany, and horsemen with brimmed hats corralling Longhorn cattle probably don’t spring to mind. But down among the squat macchia vegetation and saltmarshes of the Maremma, they were once a common sight.

Known as butteri, these mounted livestock herders tended Maremmana cattle for centuries, since before the Roman Empire.

Today, the Maremma Regional Park is the last butteri heartland. It’s a world apart from the landscape of rolling, vineyard-covered hills commonly associated with the region; narrow trails weave through ilex and parasol pine trees and past abandoned watchtowers.

Boars and martens snuffle around the woods, buzzards and ospreys wheel overhead and the pristine beaches are out of bounds to cars. But make it here and you’ll often spot butteri on their horses, galloping full tilt across their rugged, mountainous terrain.

The buttero’s life was — and is — a hard one. Many today are reliant on income from horsemanship shows and riding excursions. Others eke out a meagre living moving cattle between soggy Mediterranean pastures and cooler uplands. Just like they always have.

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Q&A with Alessandro Zampieri

Alessandro Zampieri has been a Buttero since 1979, and head of the Butteri since 1999.

Does it annoy you when people call you a ‘Tuscan cowboy’?
Absolutely! I’d never call a Texan cowboy an ‘American buttero’. Everywhere people work with livestock, there’s an individual name: in America, cowboys; in Argentina, gauchos; in France, gardians; in Hungary, csikós; and in Italy, butteri.

How long have the Butteri lived and worked in the Maremma?
Archaeological evidence from the Etruscan period [eighth–second century BC] tells us Maremmano horses and Maremmana cattle were raised in those times. They were used for work, so large herds were needed, but mechanisation and the reclamation of the Maremma’s swamps led to the near-extinction of the breeds —and the livelyhood of butteri. I can’t say how many exactly remain, but, in terms of who still does the everyday labour — it’s just us.

What is the essence of traditional Buttero life?
Our daily work is livestock control and herd management, adapting to the rhythms of our animals. In every season, there’s a different type of work to do, which can only be done on horseback. The only thing that’s changed over time is how we distribute fodder to the animals, but for the rest of the work, and especially our work on horseback, it’s all just as it once was. There’s no other way.

Published in the Tuscany guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)