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.
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. They are not armed and 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 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.
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.
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.
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 of the cover of darkness.
Sheep are milked everyday and then the traditional art of making cheese takes place in temporary shelters that are moved with the flock for fresh grazing. EU regulations which have been imposed on pastoral shepherds since Romania joined the union require much higher standards of hygiene and packaging which is simply unaffordable for most shepherds, hence their rapid decline in numbers.
The following short film by Dévai György in the Hungarian language, demonstrates the Ojdula shepherds sheering 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.
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 Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs). The stick slows the dog down when running, as knocks against the upper legs and shoulders, effectively protecting local wildlife.
Caution is advised when approaching transhumant shepherds as their dogs are constantly on the look out for threats. To date I have only approached them in my Land Rover, and usually I am greeted by a pack of aggressive, snarling dogs chasing the vehicle, then circling me when I stop. I start conversations through the window and safety of my vehicle, which gives time for the dogs to see that I am friendly with no hostile intentions. The shepherds either command the dogs to back off or they calm down once they see their masters smiling and talking with me.
Once I see that the dogs are comfortable with my presence, I then step out of the Land Rover, although I never wander too far from the shepherds. When on foot walking through forests I deliberately avoid shepherds if I see them in the distance. Livestock guarding dogs will always investigate if they hear the cracking of twigs beyond the tree line, which is often out of sight of the shepherds. I am not saying that the dogs would attack me, but I am not willing to test their resolve and determination to protect their flock.
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.
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.
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.