Walking with Shepherds


Transhumance has been practised in Transylvania for more than a thousand years, supported by tried and tested methods of pastoral animal husbandry. A high level of supervision is required by both shepherds and dogs to protect grazing flocks from predation by large numbers of brown bears and wolves that roam across the Carpathian mountains. 

Transhumant Shepherd on watch

Local transhumant shepherds have taught me some valuable lessons in conservation who view the mountains and forests as their bread basket, something to be nurtured and cared for, as without it they are fully aware their traditional way of life would soon end. They see the wolves and brown bears as part of that environment and believe that they have equal right to be there. When sheep and goats are taken, they don't call for predators to be culled as they expect some losses throughout the year. They may not be aware of it but these pastoral shepherds best demonstrate the harmony that is possible between humans, wildlife and environment.

Traditional transhumant shepherding of this kind is rarely seen in western Europe, requiring tough and hardy characters to protect their livestock from bears and wolves from early spring to late autumn. They move through forest covered mountains to open clearings rich in grass and meadow flowers. Once grazed the shepherds move on leaving the meadow layered with droppings fertilising the soil ready for fresh growth. The meat, milk and cheese produced from this chemical free grazing is delicious and truly organic. Good quality food production in harmony with the environment is not a new concept as these shepherds and their ancestors have aptly proved. It took me several years of observation and documentation to fully understand this truly refined system, the way it all works and the way it is designed to coincide with the seasons. Nothing is wasted and the footprint the shepherds leave behind is minimal.

Transhumant Shepherd with LGD driving sheep

For the first time in my life I found cheese prepared on location right next to the flock, and then packaged in tree bark! This end product is not "treated" with chemicals, pasteurised or refined in any way. Unfortunately, this is unacceptable to the bureaucrats in Brussels and a raft of EU regulations have been imposed on these pastoral shepherds since Romania joined the European Union. Much higher standards of hygiene and packaging are now required which are simply unaffordable for most shepherds, hence their rapid decline in numbers. This is in unfathomable state of affairs to local villagers that have thrived on this food for generations. If anything, the natural microbes found in this cheese actually stimulates the immune system. I believe that if over regulation is allowed to destroy this way of life, we will lose some of the most culturally diverse customs and people that still exist on the fringes of "civilised" Europe.

Transhumant Shepherd's sleeping hut

This land is truly wild without gates and fences, so wolves and bears roam without hindrance, posing a constant threat to grazing livestock. Spending time with these large flocks gives you by far the best chance of viewing a wolf, as they regularly shadow the sheep in the hope of a quick and easy meal. Wolves have very strong neck muscles and can run with a lamb in their mouth even when chased by the dogs guarding them.

Transhumant Shepherd preparing his bed

The lives of pastoral shepherds are far from comfortable and requires living outdoors and away from family and home comforts for up to five months of the year. They literally live and work with their sheep for twenty four hours a day, sleeping at night in makeshift huts on legs, which look very much like large rabbit hutches. There are no toilets and no running water or electricity. Oil lamps are used for lighting and water is fetched from rivers and streams for washing and cooking.

Transhumance in Transylvania

The sheep are rounded up in the evening and kept in a large corral overnight with shepherds sleeping just metres away. Once asleep the safety of the flock is largely in the hands of the dogs that patrol the area, keeping a watchful eye for bears and wolves that may attempt to take advantage during the cover of darkness.

Transhumance shepherds milking sheep

Sheep are milked three times a day and then the traditional art of making cheese and orda takes place in temporary transportable shelters. When the shepherds move location for fresh grazing these temporary buildings are dismantled and loaded onto carts and pulled by horse to the next designated meadow. Horses play a very important role in the system of transhumance as most vehicles cannot go where the shepherds go, moving along narrow inter-forest meadow tracks where there is no asphalt/tarmac. They are not only used for moving camp, but to transport firewood, fetching supplies, taking dairy products to local markets for sale, and when the sheep are sheared in the mountains the wool is then stuffed into large sacks before being brought down the valley by horse. I have also known them to be used as ambulances. Two years ago a shepherd was mauled by a bear very close to Ojdula. The local hospital sent an ambulance but couldn't reach the casualty as there was no access road. He was brought across the meadows laid on a cart and met the ambulance further down the valley. The shepherd survived his ordeal, but never went back to the mountains as he was left mentally scarred.

Transhumance

Some (but not all) shepherd groups also use donkeys, not to pull carts, but as mobile alarm systems. If a predator approaches the camp the donkey kicks up such a fuss, they alert both shepherds and dogs of the approaching danger.

Transhumant Shepherds - Oituz Valley

The following short film by Dévai György in the Hungarian language, demonstrates the Ojdula shepherds shearing rams. A single fleece is sold for approximately one EURO and fifty cents, usually to middle men that supply textile companies in Romania or abroad.



Villagers drop their sheep off with the transhumance shepherds on a lower meadow close to the village of Ojdula in April. The next time they see their sheep again will be in October when the shepherds return to the village from the mountains. In return the villagers receive a share of dairy and wool products. Before the villagers pick up their sheep in October, they will have been dipped to remove any parasites and the shepherds will also check and trim the sheep's hooves. The shepherds prepare their own food in transportable huts which is also used for making cheese and other dairy products such as orda.

Transhumance in Transylvania

Transhumance shepherds have to deal with high predator pressure from both wolves and bears, but attempt to co-exist using non-lethal forms of livestock protection. They do not carry guns and rely on livestock guardian dogs (LGD) for both self and livestock protection. The personal threat to the shepherds comes from bears, wolves are more elusive and will always shy away from direct confrontation with the shepherds. There are several breeds of dogs used to protect flocks. Commonly found breeds in the Carpathians include the Carpathian Sheepdog; Mioritic Sheepdog; and Caucasian Sheepdog. However, many of the dogs that I see with transhumant shepherds are cross breeds. There is no pride in maintaining pure blood lines, as a useful and effective dog is far more important than its pedigree. Therefore traits such as strength, loyalty, guarding instinct, courage, and intelligence, are far more important. These dogs are tough and although no match for a wolf or bear alone, they form packs to work as a team to protect domestic livestock. You may be wondering why these dogs are wearing a chain and stick around their necks? This is a legal obligation in Romania when using LGDs. The stick slows the dog down when running, as knocks against the upper legs and shoulders, effectively protecting local wildlife.

Don't mess with my sheep!

LGD puppies are always brought up by working mothers around the shepherd camp, so they can learn and grow into their role to protect both shepherds and livestock from predators. If there is any predator intrusion the puppies head for the relative safety of the sheds whilst the adults deal with the situation. This method of rearing dogs has been developed and practised in the mountains of Transylvania over several hundred years and without doubt promotes a healthy respect between man and dog. As humans play an integral role in protecting livestock, LGDs need to know their place within the hierarchy of that system. Even though these LGDs are brought up with humans they can easily distinguish between people they know and those they do not. If a stranger approaches the sheep the LGDs will be very vocal and won't relax until they see a friendly interaction between shepherd and intruder. Such a standoff can be seen in the photograph above. I was not going to move any further forward until a shepherd approached me and escorted me into the invisible territory of the LGDs.

LGD puppies following mummy :)

Transhumant Shepherds - Cernat

Although there is very little for sheep to eat within the forest itself, the shepherds use long established corridors to reach pockets of fresh meadow grazing beyond.

Sheep on route through forest

Sons of pastoral shepherds learn their trade from a very young age and soon become versed with all the necessary skills for transhumant shepherding. There are many debates in progress regarding the rights and wrongs of children missing out on large parts of their formal school education, but I will leave that controversy for others to pursue.

Transhumant Shepherd with son

The following is an excellent short video by Dévai György and Bella Cecília documenting the lives of the Ojdula transhumant shepherds.



To see more of my Transhumant Shepherd photographs please visit my Flickr page.