ALBERESE, Italy – On a recent dewy morning on this flat stretch near the Tuscan coast, a young man rode his horse with the reins in one hand and a long, hooked wooden stick in the other.
Stefano Pavin is one of a dwindling handful of what are known as butteri, Italian cowboys, who for centuries have roamed the marshes of the Maremma, a coastal area that stretches across parts of the Tuscany and Lazio regions, herding “maremmana” cattle a local breed famous for their large bellies and long, lyre-shaped horns.
While the maremmana are gaining in numbers, they are still listed as at potential risk of extinction under European legislation, as there are fewer than 7,500 cows. They are not, in fact, endangered, but having that status entitles the farms that raise them to subsidies that help assure the breed’s survival.
But the number of butteri (pronounced BOO-teh-ree) has dropped. Today, only five can be found on horseback here in Tuscany (there are some others in Lazio). But they are defying extinction with the same resilience as the cattle they have tended in these marshlands for centuries.
“This is not my job, it’s my passion,” said Pavin, 45, a short, sun-tanned cowboy who remembers the pain of his first four-hour ride in 1988 as precisely as he does the names of the nine bulls and 220 cows that he moves and takes care of every day, starting at 7:30 a.m.
Pavin works at the Alberese farm, an 4,598-hectare estate located mostly inside the protected area of the Maremma Regional Park, a large nature reserve in southern Tuscany, about 161 kilometres north of Rome.
Men, horses and cattle roam beaches here covered by pine and olive trees planted in the 19th century and dotted with medieval watchtowers. The Alberese farm, which is owned by the Tuscany regional government, includes thousands of hectares of pastures and woods, as well as vineyards, olive gardens – and sand dunes.
Derived from ancient Greek and Latin, the word butteri means someone who handles a team of oxen, and Tuscan cowboys like today’s butteri have watched their herds here since Etruscan times. But over the years, their way of life has clashed with the changing times.
The modern world, while slow to seep in here, has not been kind to the Maremma and its cattle (a large breed, with bulls reaching more than 1,134 kilograms). Much pastureland is required for the cattle to breed in the wild, but after World War I the state confiscated and carved up many of the large landed estates that had provided that space.
In the 1930s, Mussolini drained much of the swampland, and in the 1950s tractors replaced the cattle, which were raised for farm work as well as for meat.
Giovanni Travagliati, now a bowlegged 101, came here soon after the drainage. He has been on horseback for more than 80 years and still walks about with the butteri’s signature hook, used to open gates and prod cattle, in his hand.
“Even smaller farms used to have two or three butteri in the 1930s, when I first arrived here,” he said. “Now we just have those at Alberese.”
Despite their endangered status, maremmana cattle are raised primarily for their meat, and some are brought to slaughter every year. But maremmana beef can be hard to find, even at Italian butcher shops – apart from here, of course.
One shop in the village of Alberese chops up everything from steaks to trimmings. Some local restaurants serve maremmana meat, which has a wild flavour. And a recent project has brought the meat onto the tables of university cafeterias throughout Tuscany. But you are unlikely to find it anywhere else.
Some believe that saving the cattle will also save century-old traditions and the related jobs. Others are betting that the region can cash in on tourism. The Alberese farm already offers tourists morning horse rides with the butteri, and will soon have the cowboys teaching less skilled riders how to knot the butteri’s rope.
While the future of maremmana cattle seems secure for now, the same cannot be said for the butteri, who work long hours for not much pay. Young butteri are paid about $1,500 a month, depending on how many days they work, to mount testy horses every morning, come rain or shine, deal with wild cattle and tend to a number of other chores in the fields.
“I was first charmed by the idea of working while horse riding,” said the youngest buttero at the Alberese farm, Yuri Pieretto, 28, who joined the team in 2009 after he lost his job as an electrician. “But I must say that after two years, it is still hard to wake up with my first alarm at 6 a.m. and then work so fast and so hard.”
“I come from a butteri family, but the job was paid quite badly, so I studied and became a bank employee,” said Mariano Molinari, 66, the grandchild of Mariano Molinari, who brought hundreds of cattle from Lazio to Alberese to repopulate the farm after the herd was sold during World War I.
“When my family came to Alberese in 1934, the cattle were more important than the men,” he added. “Now it’s the opposite.”
Molinari is also a descendant of Augusto Imperiali, a buttero who attained legendary status as the only Italian cowboy who managed to tame a bronco owned by Buffalo Bill. It took place in 1890, when the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was touring Europe. The U.S. cowboys were challenged by the Duke of Sermoneta to lasso, saddle, bridle and mount one of his infamously wild horses during a stop in Rome. The cowboys succeeded, and then Buffalo Bill challenged the Italian cowboys to try to ride one of his wild horses. Out of the eight or nine butteri who took the dare, only Augusto Imperiali managed to stay in the saddle.
When asked why he still walks around with his hook, Travagliati answered, “You know what it is? I just feel like I can’t walk straight without it.”