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 over many generations. A high level of supervision is required by both shepherds and dogs to protect grazing flocks from depredation by brown bears, wolves and lynx that roam across the Carpathian mountains.

Local transhumant shepherds have taught me many valuable lessons over the years about conservation and why it is important to work in harmony with nature. They 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 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.

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 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 left by shepherds is minimal.

When I was first introduced to transhumance in Romania I was surprised to discover that after milking the sheep, the cheese was made immediately after in temporary wooden sheds. This end product is not "treated" with chemicals, pasteurised or refined in any way. However, if these products are to be sold in shops and supermarkets this practice of manufacture is deemed unacceptable to the bureaucrats in Brussels and a raft of EU regulations have now been imposed on pastoral shepherds since Romania joined the European Union. Much higher standards of hygiene and packaging are required which are unaffordable for most shepherds. 

This is unfathomable to local villagers who 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 continues in this way it could destroy this way of life and we will lose some of the most culturally diverse customs and people that still exist on the fringes of "civilised" Europe.

This land is truly wild without gates and fences, so wolves, lynx 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 sheepfold 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 predators that may attempt to take advantage during the cover of darkness.

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 pulling carts play a very important role in the system of transhumance as most vehicles cannot go where the shepherds go, moving along narrow, unsurfaced forest tracks that connect remote mountain meadows. Horses 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.

Several years ago a shepherd was mauled by a bear not far from here. The local hospital sent an ambulance but couldn't reach the casualty as there was no access road. First, he had to be carried across a meadow and laid on a cart which was then pulled by a horse lower into the valley. Once they reached a surfaced road the casualty was transferred to the ambulance and taken to hospital. The shepherd survived his ordeal, but never went back to the mountains as he was left mentally scarred.

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.

Flocks are formed in spring from the shepherd's own sheep and also those of local villagers that pay for their services. Most villagers own a few sheep which they keep in barns through the winter. However, it would not be economical for them to stand over and watch two to three sheep graze daily for months at a time. Neither would they have access to the lush grass on the high meadows. 

Once spring arrives they transport their sheep to transhumance shepherds that are waiting on nearby meadows close to the village. The next time they see their sheep again will be in October when the shepherds return to the village from the mountains.

The transaction between each villager and the shepherd goes something like this, but can vary. The villager receives 6kg of cheese + 1kg orda per sheep handed over for grazing per season (24 April - 25 November). In autumn the shepherd then receives payment (equivalent to 15-20€) from each villager per sheep that he has cared for. 

It becomes more complicated if a sheep is killed by a predator or goes missing. Compensation can be claimed from the government for livestock depredations. However, the responsibility for the claim lies with the owner, even if the dead sheep was under the care of a shepherd. But the shepherd will have to compensate the owner if a sheep disappears without trace, as to claim compensation evidence must be provided. 

Shepherds take good care of the sheep handed over into their care, protecting them from predators, caring for them when they are sick, shearing, lambing and milking. Before they are returned to their owners each sheep will have been 'dipped' to remove parasites and the shepherds will also check and trim their hooves.

Transhumance shepherds have to deal with high predator pressure from both wolves and bears (and occasionally by lynx), 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 in Romania. Commonly found breeds in the Carpathians include the Carpathian ShepherdBucovina ShepherdMioritic Sheepdog and the Romanian Raven (Corb) Shepherd. LGD breeds are also imported from abroad such as the ҆arplaninac, Caucasian Shepherd, Central Asian Shepherd and Anatolian Shepherd. That said many of the working dogs I see are crossbreeds, having been matched to promote positive traits found within the pack or with dogs from other shepherd groups.

Shepherds that I know are rarely concerned about pedigree papers and pure blood lines. They simply want effective dogs and 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 it knocks against the upper legs and shoulders, effectively protecting local wildlife.

The shepherds themselves are integral to the predator deterrent, so the dogs need to know their place within the hierarchy of that system. As they are reared as puppies in the presence of  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.

It's very important to heed the warning signs displayed these dogs if you are a stranger. Don't keep walking forward until the shepherd comes to greet you or calls his dogs back. If no shepherd appears, then turn around and leave walking slowly. If you need to walk past then find an alternative route around the flock, with plenty of space between you and the dogs.

LGD puppies are preferably brought up by working mothers around the shepherd camp, so they can learn and grow into their role to protect both shepherds and livestock. If predators attack the flock the puppies head for the relative safety of the sheds whilst the adults deal with the situation.

Transhumant Shepherds - Cernat

It is illegal to graze livestock within the forest itself, but shepherds need to use long established corridors to reach 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 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.


This article was updated on May 21, 2023.