Gone and still going…

Gone and still going…
Nearly two months since my first post and this is the first time I’ve had to update the blog.

This has been an exceptionally dry year in the Carpathian Mountains and the shepherds of Marginimea Sibiului are taking their time before deciding when to leave. Most have to bring their flocks down from the higher pastures on or by 1st October. That’s the rule laid down by the mayors of comune who rent out many of the mountains for grazing. It helps the land to recover and from an environmental point of view, it ties in with EU legislation that gives grants to farmers or landholders who own mountain hayfields and pastures in return for clearing the land of saplings. The grants are dependent on a law that says you mustn’t cut your hay before 1st July, which is OK as a general rule but makes life difficult for some. I learnt this and a lot more by going to the Rural’Est conference in Valea lui Boros in early August. The conference, or seminar as it was officially called, was organised by two researchers, one British and the other French, and it brought together academics, PhD students, researchers from French and Romanian think tanks and agricultural institutes, an anthropoligist, a farmer (only one!), two members of the European Commission, and interested hangers-on like me. It was a mainly French and Romanian affair although the other Brits included a PhD hopeful from London and Barbara Knowles, an extraordinary person who, while suffering from motor neurone disease has devoted her life – and experience as a biologist who advises the British government – to supporting the Pogany-Havas microregion, which in turn is helping to promote small-scale agriculture in eastern Transylvania, in conjunction with a grant from Natura 2000.

Contrast this well-orchestrated, brilliantly managed, extremely friendly gathering of academics and bureaucrats, a ‘toe in the water’ weekend in the beautiful mountains of Harghita, with the rough realities of shepherding and you’ll wonder if you’re living in the same world. That’s the challenge – how to bring the two sides together without losing the purity of both.

So far, I’m still waiting to go on transhumance: my plans fell apart when I arrived in Rasinari and heard that the shepherd’s son who was to have led the trek from Batrana to Lugoj was getting married, and that his parents didn’t think it was wise to leave me to the mercies of the two hired shepherds who would be going without him. It was disappointing – a bit devastating in fact – but since I was there and had made the time free, I have decided to stay and make use of this opportunity to learn more about shepherding in the raw. It’s not such a dramatic analogy: I’ve spent four days at a mountain top ‘stana’ or ‘coliba’, in the company of three (male) shepherds, 11 dogs, six donkeys, a mare and her colt foal. After bunking down in the wooden chalet, house, cabin, shack, call it what you want, for the first night (which meant sharing a room with the chief shepherd) I decided to try my luck outside for the remaining two. The best option seemed to be the cart, and so, with my alpine sleeping bag (it may have been the one my father used when he got lost in the Alps in 1962), a duvet (kindly provided by the shepherd’s wife and pulled up to the stana with a car battery, some gherkins and tomatoes, my rucksack, me and the shepherd’s son by a willing six year old mare), a well-worn cojoc (shepherd’s full length sheepskin cloak) and anything else I could muster to keep out the cold and the dew, I had two of the best nights’ sleep I’ve had for years. Well, with the exception of a niggling fear induced by the talk of wolves – paranoid images of a wolf leaping onto me and dragging me out of my bag proved unfounded, and the odd excursion ‘in natura’ under a mackerel and moon-lit sky.

Life is rough for these people, inspite/because of the sheer weight of work they have to in order to keep their flocks healthy and safe. It was only while up there, not far from Crint, and with a magnificent view over the Transylvanian plateau nearly 2000 metres below, that I twigged why British sheep can run free on the mountains and in fields without a constant human presence. The last wolf in Wales was killed in something like 1840 I think – tell me if I’m wrong – and goodness knows when bears died out there. Apart from rogue dogs, sheep rustlers, bugs, market forces – oh, and the menaces of an incomprehending and unsympathetic government – there isn’t much that threatens sheep in our country. (That’s looking at it from the sheep farmers’ point of view, not the sheep’s.)

I cane down from the fold in a mixture of relief and regret: it was a wonderful place to spend a few days, far from mobile phones and computers, with the sun blazing down on the undulating pastures with their close-cropped lawns, springs and mountain streams and scattered woods of beech, silver birch, maple and hazel. The sheep fold even had its own orchard, long since neglected so that the four or five apple trees were huge and their crops well out of reach. It was a great place to reflect on life, to write, read, to do nothing and not feel guilty about it.

I didn’t do nothing actually: the fold was short-staffed because of a death in the family and twice when the remaining shepherds had to go and milk the ewes, they left me in charge of the ‘sterpe’ (the lambs and shearlings). About 300 heaving, straying, bleating sheep and their melodious bells. I had to keep them together in case a wolf came, a threat that seemed ridiculous in that almost English landscape, so much like parkland laid out by an 18th century landscape architect, only more so and better. It wasn’t an idle threat: ten days earlier while visiting another fold belonging to the same family, I had – just missed – seeing a wolf by the river below the flock. Judging by the row made by the Carpathian sheepdogs and the shepherds’ yells it wasn’t a false alarm. But I have to admit to being disappointed that no wolf appeared on my watch.

A dogs’ life: brought up to love dogs and have them as pets, I made the mistake of getting too close to the ones in the stana. It wasn’t that they attacked me, quite the opposite – once they realised I was part of the fold so to speak, they mobbed me for affection and food. And it was wonderful to have a hairy canine head to scratch and fondle, its full weight in your hand, responding to love in a place where I was partly on sufference myself, and where I didn’t feel entirely welcome. But the dogs slunk away at the sight of a shepherd, who more often than not bawled at them for hanging around the stana when they should have been protecting the sheep. The dogs were famished I think – they certainly didn’t get fed as often as our at home. I know I’m treading on dangerous ground here, for I also grew up with a respect for working dogs and their masters – not a relationship you should interfere with. But the level of violence meted out to the mutts upset me and once after what seemed like a gratuitous act of cruelty, I let go and yelled my outrage. The response from the shepherd was a curling lip and a shrug of the shoulders. So much for Renaissance pastoral poetry, you might think, but these shepherds had their moments of feeling too: my host played a mean ‘fluier’ (wooden pipe, looking a bit like a recorder but sounding more like a flute), the younger ones liked to listen to folk music on their mobile phones, and the jokes were rich and fruity. Grudges didn’t seem to be kept; the shepherd I shouted at wanted his photo taken on horseback the next day, and invited me to take up shepherding as a profession. Maybe he thought the swap would be in his favour. At least he’d get to sleep indoors.

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