Shepherd or no shepherd?

by Paul White

Several readers have contacted me to ask if it is necessary to have a constant human presence when grazing livestock in predator country, with some suggesting that to do so is not economically viable in modern day farming.

Transhumance - Cernat

I am aware of the problems and fears caused by human/predator conflict in countries that have seen a return of the wolf and bear, but it is how these threats to livestock are managed that farmers need to consider if they are to deploy an effective deterrent.

Romania has it's own problems too, especially in areas where the 'old ways' of protecting livestock have been forgotten, but this is gradually being addressed by NGO projects which provide shepherds with livestock guardian dogs, fladry and electric fencing to protect sheepfolds.

Wolves and bears have protected status in Romania, so farmers cannot deal with predator conflicts with the gun, so solutions and counter measures are required to promote coexistence with predators rather than elimination.

I document my observations to describe rather than to persuade. My study area is confined to the eastern Carpathians, Covasna county in Romania, where the predator burden for farmers is considered to be high. Whilst I spend most of my time with shepherds from the Hungarian speaking Székely community, the traditions and methods deployed to coexist with predators are similar to other areas of Romania.

There are essentially three types of livestock grazing here, but none are completely static:-

1. Grazing on local communal meadows during the day and returning livestock to the village at night. With this method there has been some recent use of single strand electric perimeter fencing to prevent livestock straying into fields used for crops. Some villagers pay herdsmen to look after their livestock during the day, whilst others leave cows and horses unattended to graze locally between the village and forests.

2. Grazing on higher meadows but remaining close to the village with livestock penned in sheepfolds at night. Shepherds present 24/7, but milk and cheese is processed in the village.

3. Transhumance - the practice of moving livestock from one grazing area to another in a seasonal cycle, typically starting in the lower valleys at the beginning of the grazing season (March-April), then progressing to the highlands in summer. This requires the use of horses and carts to move the whole shepherd camp, including cooking equipment, sheep pens, milking station, and sleeping huts. This cycle ends around October-November, but this is dependent on weather conditions and the amount of grazing available. Shepherds are present 24/7.

Grazing method (1) carries the lowest risk of livestock depredation during spring to summer, with methods (2+3) carrying a higher risk and are dependent on a continuous human presence.

In my study area there is a long tradition of sheep farming and the fundamental deterrent to prevent depredation is a continuous shepherd presence supported by livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) - Personally I find that LGDs are much less effective without a shepherd present. They need guidance, feeding and chastising occasionally. The shepherd is like a parent and a team leader, attending to the needs of his sheep and dogs, looking after their health and dealing with any injuries as and when they occur, at any time of the day or night.

Veterinary surgeons do not venture into remote mountains to treat livestock where there are few if any roads and often no telephone signal, so shepherds need to be self sufficient with a good knowledge of animal husbandry, including first aid.

Transhumance in Transylvania

LGD pack dynamics is a constant consideration too. Introducing new bloodlines, raising and supervising young dogs, working with them and maintaining boundaries. All this early attention/intervention makes for a well balanced and better behaved dog. LGDs that are overly aggressive with humans have not been supervised properly and haven't been around people enough. This process of building an effective team is time intensive and done on the job, but it cannot be achieved without the guidance, authority and presence of the shepherd. Allowing dogs to go feral does not generally provide good outcomes.

LGD with puppies

Transhumance here is remote shepherding with grazing areas often located between forest stands in the wildest areas of the mountains. Once grazed the shepherds follow forest corridors to fresh grazing on neighbouring meadows. They milk their sheep three times a day and make cheese on the mountain. They are too far away from home to return each evening with their sheep for a shower and to sleep.

Life is tough being attached to the flock 24/7 and to be away from home comforts and family between April through to October. But they consider this a price worth paying to prevent livestock losses, for they know that a wolf will not stop at a single sheep in an unprotected flock.

Transhumant Shepherd

A sheepfold is used to pen the sheep overnight. Having them confined like this during darkness makes it easier for the shepherds and dogs to protect them. Shepherds sleep in small wooden huts that surround the sheepfold whilst the LGDs patrol, constantly vigilant for predator activity. If a wolf or bear enters the sheepfold the shepherds leap from their beds screaming and shouting, armed only with their wooden staffs. The dogs will chase and harry the predator away from the sheepfold, but will also fight if necessary.

Shepherd's sleeping hut


Shepherd group 1 is my main study group. During the 2018 grazing season they were on the meadows from April until November. 3 full time shepherds, 12 livestock guardian dogs and 500 sheep. Predator burden = high. Depredation losses = 0.