Shepherds' Alpine crossing straddles history, borders

MASO CORTO, Italy, June 12 (Reuters) - Around dawn, the shepherds gather near the Italian town of Maso Corto and prepare to take their sheep into Austria, along an Alpine track centuries older that the border they are crossing.

Over the next ten hours, they climb 800 meters (2,600 feet) to the Hochjoch pass, corralling their animals over snowfields, along narrow, rocky paths and at one point, across a suspension bridge, single file.

By the end of it, the 1,500 sheep reach their summer pastures in Oetztal - a 16km (10-mile) trek from one valley to another that has survived wars and outlasted empires.

"The first references to the pastures date back to 1360," says Anton Raffeiner, one of the owners of the land on the Austrian side. Many believe the tradition began when someone from one valley married someone in the other and gave the pasture as a dowry, he adds.

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Shepherds lead sheep across 10-mile Alpine crossing
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Shepherds lead sheep across 10-mile Alpine crossing
Sheep make their way in front of Hochjochferner glacier in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A shepherd guides sheep across a snow field on their way up to the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sign marks the border between Italy and Austria at the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep cross the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Shepherds guide sheep across a snow field up to the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep make their way up to the mountain shelter "Schoene Aussicht" (Bella Vista) at 2,842 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep make their way past a rocky path up to the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep make their way down to "Rofenberg" pasture in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
A shepherd guides sheep across a snow field on their way up to the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
A shepherd guides sheep on their way up to the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep cross a bridge on their way to "Rofenberg" pasture located at 2,400 meters above sea level in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
A backbone of a sheep is seen on the path to "Rofenberg" pasture located at 2,400 meters above sea level in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep and their lambs have a break on their way down to "Rofenberg" pasture located at 2,400 meters above sea level in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep cross a snow field on their way up to the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep cross a snow field on their way up to the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Shepherd Johann Niedermaier, 86, arrives at mountain shelter "Schoene Aussicht" (Bella Vista) at 2,842 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep have a break in front of Hochjochferner glacier at 2,842 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
A general view of the summer pasture "Rofenberg" located at 2,400 meters above sea level in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
A shepherd guides sheep across a snow field on their way up to the alpine pass "Hochjoch" at 2,856 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
A general view of the summer pasture "Rofenberg" located at 2,400 meters above sea level in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
A sheep grazes at the summer pasture "Rofenberg" located at 2,400 meters above sea level in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep make their way down the alpine pass "Hochjoch" after crossing the border to Austria in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep and their shepherds have a break at the mountain shelter "Schoene Aussicht" (Bella Vista) at 2,842 meters above sea level, in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep and lambs make their way out of an enclosure, 2,011 meters above sea level, in the village of Kurzras (Maso Corto) in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
A sheep and a lamb wait inside an enclosure during sunrise at 2,011 meters above sea level in the village of Kurzras (Maso Corto) in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, Italy, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Sheep cross a bridge on their way to "Rofenberg" pasture located at 2,400 meters above sea level in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. Picture taken June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
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Maso Corto is in the region of Alto Adige, also known as South Tyrol, which became part of Italy after World War One. Strong connections with Austrian Tyrol remain and most people in the region still speak German.

"I have traveled this route more than 200 times," says 86-year-old Johann Niedermaier, one of the 15 shepherds. None of them work as shepherds full time, and only one will spend the summer with the flock.

This year's crossing passes without incident. But in the past, the weather has been treacherous and there are always risks. "Nothing has ever happened to the shepherds," says Niedermaier. "But the sheep..." (Reporting by Lisi Niesner Writing by Francois Murphy Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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