Classification of pasture habitats by Hungarian herders in a steppe landscape (Hungary)
Centre for Ecological Research, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, H-2163, Vácrátót, Alkotmány u. 2-4., Hungary
Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2012, 8:28 doi:10.1186/1746-4269-8-28Published: 1 August 2012
Landscape ethnoecology focuses on the ecological features of the landscape, how the landscape is perceived, and used by people who live in it. Though studying folk classifications of species has a long history, the comparative study of habitat classifications is just beginning. I studied the habitat classification of herders in a Hungarian steppe, and compared it to classifications of botanists and laymen.
For a quantitative analysis the picture sort method was used. Twenty-three pictures of 7-11 habitat types were sorted by 25 herders.’Density’ of pictures along the habitat gradient of the Hortobágy salt steppe was set as equal as possible, but pictures differed in their dominant species, wetness, season, etc. Before sorts, herders were asked to describe pictures to assure proper recognition of habitats.
Herders classified the images into three main groups: (1) fertile habitats at the higher parts of the habitat gradient (partos, lit. on the shore); (2) saline habitats (szík, lit. salt or saline place), and (3) meadows and marshes (lapos, lit. flooded) at the lower end of the habitat gradient. Sharpness of delimitation changed along the gradient. Saline habitats were the most isolated from the rest. Botanists identified 6 groups. Laymen grouped habitats in a less coherent way.
As opposed to my expectations, botanical classification was not more structured than that done by herders. I expected and found high correspondence between the classifications by herders, botanists and laymen. All tended to recognize similar main groups: wetlands, ”good grass” and dry/saline habitats. Two main factors could have been responsible for similar classifications: salient features correlated (e.g. salinity recognizable by herders and botanists but not by laymen correlated with the density of grasslands or height of vegetation recognizable also for laymen), or the same salient features were used as a basis for sorting (wetness, and abiotic stress).
Despite all the difficulties of studying habitat classifications (more implicit, more variable knowledge than knowledge on species), conducting landscape ethnoecological research will inevitably reveal a deeper human understanding of biological organization at a supraspecific level, where natural discontinuities are less sharp than at the species or population level.