How wild is too wild?

by Paul White 

What would you consider an acceptable risk in farming? Imagine life in a small caravan with two young children on the edge of wilderness where wolves and bears freely roam. Imagine if these same apex predators visit you and your flock of sheep and goats at night. This is the constant reality for a young family trying to make a living from the land in Transylvania. 

We went for a drive on agricultural fields between our village and the next when we met Melinda tending her flock. We were looking for wolves and bears that had recently been spotted by local villagers and asked Melinda if she had seen them. She said their livestock guardian dogs have confrontations with bears several times a week and they were visited by two wolves just the night before.

Thankfully their guardian dogs prevented any livestock depredations and the dogs suffered no injuries from the wolves either. In fact they've had no livestock losses to predators at all this year, which is an impressive record considering the frequency of contacts.

Meeting Melinda was a unique experience for us as she is the first shepherdess we've met and certainly the first that speaks English. Her partner Tibor had just gone to a local village with their two young children for food supplies so we arranged to return the next day to meet them too.

When we met Tibor, he explained that they have to be constantly vigilant to successfully coexist with apex predators and have had some hard lessons to learn on this journey. Like the time in 2015 when they lost fifteen sheep to wolves in one night. They hired someone to look after their livestock, but for some unknown reason this person tethered the dogs, so they were unable to freely roam and repel the wolves during the night. 

Because of the presence of so many predators, it's common practice for shepherds to maintain a physical presence 24/7 to support their dogs in case of attack. Just this week three bears attempted to steal sheep but were successfully repelled. Incredibly Tibor managed to film some of this contact with his mobile phone in one hand and a torch in the other.

Staying on site whilst their sheep and goats graze requires them to sleep in caravan. From this temporary dwelling they can hear and see most of what goes on and quickly get outside to support their dogs when predators attack. Both of their children, Todor and Melinda are resilient kids and are learning fast about the environment and nature that surrounds them. They also have a special bond with the dogs that protect their flock.  

Most shepherds that I meet in the mountains practice seasonal transhumance, a nomadic style of grazing which starts in Spring in the lower valleys, then moving through forests to higher pastures during the summer. Transhumance shepherds produce milk, cheese, meat and wool and here in Covasna county they prefer a hardy breed of sheep called 'Cigája'. 

The difference with Tibor and Melinda is that they are local shepherds breeding a meat breed of sheep that was originally developed in the UK called the 'Suffolk'. They own and rent fields and rotate graze their flock. Most of the sheep they sell are bought by other shepherds wanting to strengthen the genes in their own flocks. Apparently many cross their 'Suffolks' with 'Cigája' (local breed) to produce sheep that can be used for milk and meat.

So why do bears and wolves leave the forest where they are most comfortable and roam agricultural fields? Tibor said the bears are initially attracted to the fields where maize is grown. He said bears will gorge themselves for hours, hidden by the tall stems of plants. 

You can always tell what a bear has been eating by studying their scat (see below). I took this photo on a track that crosses the fields not far from Tibor's land.

Once the maize is harvested, bears usually return to the forest for their 'winter sleep'. However, due to the unusually warm temperatures this year, several have remained in the fields and have now turned their attention to livestock. 

There had been a confrontation between the dogs and an unknown predator a couple of nights before so Tibor and I decided to investigate. We found the tracks of a large bear that we tracked across agricultural land all the way to the field where Tibor's sheep are kept overnight. We found no evidence that the raid had been successful but Tibor's concern is that if the bear kills just one sheep, then it will keep returning for more.

Wolves are attracted to the fields for natural prey such as roe deer and rodents, but they are opportunistic hunters and will take livestock if inadequately protected. Even when guardian dogs are present, wolves will test their defences by sending in a lone wolf as a decoy to draw the dogs away from the flock allowing the rest of the pack to take sheep. Tibor said his dogs are aware of this tactic and two dogs remain with his flock whilst the other seven confront any predators.

Roe deer prefer to rest in the centre of harvested fields, giving the maximum visibility and time to respond when predators approach them.

From the nine livestock guardian dogs (LGD) that Tibor and Melinda have most are Šarplaninac shepherd dogs, an ancient molosser breed developed in the Balkans of the former Yugoslavia.

They did a lot of research before deciding which dogs to buy and believe Šarplaninac's suit their needs best, fierce and fearless when confronting wolves and bears but calm, loyal and gentle with their human family. 

There are few options to buy Šarplaninac puppies in Romania so Tibor travelled abroad to buy Bronson (above, left). He was a good choice and became the alpha male of the pack. He's ten years old now but remains a force to be reckoned with.

Play is very important for young livestock guardian dogs as it sharpens and refines their reactions when dealing with predators. Penge and Vihar (below) are eleven month old brothers. 

Two of their dogs are lighter in colour and appear to have been crossed with another breed of livestock guardian dog called the Central Asian Shepherd. Kölyök is one such LGD and being eleven years old, he needs extra protection. Wolves know exactly where a dog's vulnerabilities lie so a spiked collar is necessary to protect him during confrontations.

I find Kölyök a very interesting dog, extremely loyal to his human family, but only tolerating me when his family are present. When I drove about 200 metres away and got out of my car to take photos of Tibor with his sheep, Kölyök rushed me sending me scuttling for the open door of my car. However, later the same afternoon when standing in a very cold field (-4 oC), talking to Tibor just 3 metres away, Kölyök walked over to me and sat on my foot (see below) to keep it warm. Apparently he has done this since he was a puppy.

Most shepherds move their sheep to large barns during the harsh winter weather, feeding them hay and corn. However, due to the warm weather Tibor has kept his flock outside. He said they are less stressed when outside but there's little for them to eat, so he gives them a daily supplementary feed with corn. 

I have only ever seen livestock guardian dogs used in Romania for the sole purpose of protecting livestock. They are specialised dogs that have a strong protective instinct, but they don't drive sheep like the much smaller border collies that I'm used to seeing back home. Tibor was the first shepherd that I've met that uses a combination of LGD's along with one little Mudi, an ancient Hungarian sheep driving breed. 

Unfortunately, Bobby was killed just a few days after I took this photo. Tibor informed me that he followed the LGD's into a confrontation with either predators or LGD's from another pack. He staggered back injured through dense fog and died at Tibor's feet. He showed me the large bite wound which covered most of his back. He said that in many ways he was too brave for his small size, that he had the heart of an LGD but not the physique.

Most lambs are born in the spring but I think the warm December weather has caused confusion in so many ways. A pair of Suffolk twins were born on one of my visits and was greeted with curiosity by the dogs too.

Tibor and Melinda recently introduced goats to their flock too and from next year hope to provide them with enough milk for their own family's needs.

This is an evolving story, so I will provide further updates from time to time. I have also created an album on Google with many more photos from my trips, please click here to view.