Mint sauce or ethics?

Spring transhumance officially begins on 1st April, which this year fell two weeks before Orthodox Easter.  Most farmers want to get their lambs into the shops just before Easter because it is the only time during the year that Romanians eat lamb meat in large quantities.  Ghita delayed his spring walk because there was so little grass, but he didn’t need to rush back home, because he had made his own arrangements with individual meat traders.  Ghita either did not know or would not tell me where his lambs went, but he was adamant that his methods of raising them were more humane than intensive farming.

Going straight from the farm where lambing had only just finished, to Cluj where I celebrated Easter with friends, the connections between the two were unavoidable.  In Christian imagery, the lamb is a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and images of The Lamb of God abound.   Most of us are so used to the link that we don’t bat an eyelid when it comes to eating the animals, no matter how or why they have been killed.  Contemplating silent paintings and carvings of The Lamb in the surroundings of an Orthodox or Reformed church is less devastating than spending time with the creatures themselves when you know that they have only been bred for the butcher’s knife.  It took two days for me to start getting fond of an individual lamb – it was Sean, whose mother had rejected him at birth – and I wasn’t the only one to have favourites.

Of course all livestock farmers have to come to terms with the fact of death and do not see a paradox between caring for their animals and killing them.  Since spending time so close to the realities of raising animals for profit, I’ve got a lot more time for charities like Compassion in World Farming and campaigns to reduce the amount of time during which animals are transported live to abattoirs.  In Romania, small-holders who raised animals for their own food and for limited sales in local markets used to kill them at home.  I have never witnessed this at first hand but have been told that they did not stun them first, but surely it is better to slaughter an animal quickly, rather than subject it to the torture of travelling long distances in horrific conditions?

In Romania and Poland, horses are often transported overland to abattoirs in southern Italy.  It takes up to three days, often without rests or water and if the horses kick each other or have other accidents, they are not treated.  Ironically since the ‘financial crisis’ Italian meat traders have been buying fewer horses because of the high cost of fuel.  World Horse Welfare reports that the numbers of horses driven live to abattoirs has halved during the past ten years, thanks in large part to its protests.  But that still leaves some 60,000 equines a year who undergo the unnecessary ordeal of being packed into transporters and driven to their deaths in a state of panic.  The numbers of other animals must be far higher.  Would it not be better to send them away when they are already dead?  If it is all a matter of refrigeration costs, surely there would be huge long-term benefits of killing animals close to where they were raised?  Ghita told me you can taste the difference in an animal that has been kept on limited grazing and killed when it is afraid – if only for the pleasure of gourmet carnivores, the meat is not nearly as good to taste (and therefore less nutritious) and it smells of adrenalin.

Looking for figures to back up my arguments, I found this extract, reproduced on the British Texel Sheep Society’s website from a French farming magazine:  “According to an article published in the French Pâtre magazine, Romanian sheep meat production could rise by 30% by 2015, of which 90% would be exported, mostly live (Greece, Italy, Spain, Middle East). It reckons there are 3 m. people owning sheep in Romania. There are 4.5 m. ha of natural pasture. The largest farm owns 10,000 ewes.”

An on-line advertisement for the Carpatic Lamb Slaughter House which opened near Bucharest in 2006 tells us:  “Romania, although it has the third European sheep livestock in size (roughly 9,000,000 sheep), it hasn’t had almost any sheep meat export activity. This was due to lack of slaughtering facilities able to fully comply with the European standards. Until recently, almost all the sheep meat export was done by exporting only living animals (roughly 2,000,000 sheep/year).”

And, looking at this link – – it seems that some British farmers are keen to ‘improve’ Romania’s sheep breeds, to make them heavier in meat, so that they can export British rams.  Romanian farms have already begun to introduce German rams.  This is from High Airyolland Farm and ‘the sheep farmer who likes to write stories not a writer that likes to keep sheep’: “A major part of the sheep industry in Romania revolves around the production of soft cheese made from the milk from their Turcana breed of sheep.  The Turcana is the most numerous sheep in the country numbering approximately six million.  It’s a hill type which has been bred for milk production so, as you would expect, the breed has taken on the physical characteristics of a dairy animal.  Now with the traditional on-farm methods of production and manufacture coming under pressure from Brussels a lurch towards meat production has started.  The professor of animal production at a major teaching university in the town of Timisoara told us.  ‘We must start to improve our sheep by hybridisation’.  The professor, who has seen attempts to make improvements like this fail in the past, still sees the future of the sheep meat industry in his country to be reliant on the benefit that the vigour and greater weight gain a cross of some sort will produce.’

That’s all very well except that the fatter animals are less well suited to Romania’s alpine terrain.  Being less hardy may mean in the long run that they need more specialised and veterinary care.   At the moment, as Airyolland indicates, Romanians eat relatively little lamb and mutton and the sheep are bred mainly for milk to make cheese.  Efforts are being made to turn the various cheese types into speciality brands, and for example, you can buy cas (pronounced ‘cash’), telemea, branza de burduf ‘from Sibiu’ (meaning it’s from Marginimea Sibiului) in specialised cheese shops in Bucharest’s Crangasi Market.

Since the 1989 revolution, the high prices which Ceausescu’s regime had granted Romanian farmers for their milk, meat and wool disappeared.  As the country plunged into uncertainty all the emphases changed, few of us realising that the medieval farming methods which many British visitors find so entrancing to look at had come about relatively recently partly as a result of the fact that many of the country’s tractors disappeared ‘overnight’ after Ceausescu’s assassination.  I have been told many times that Romania’s notoriously bad roads were in fine shape during the 1970s.  Not having been there before 1993, I saw the  horse-drawn, ox-drawn, and donkey-drawn carts as age-old fixtures.

To get a better picture of how Romanian farming has developed as it has, I’ve found the doctoral theses of researchers like Katy Fox and Michael Pearson very helpful.   Both have studied the effects of EU legislation and Romanian government application of that legislation on subsistence and semi-subsistence farms.  Katy Fox concentrated on farming villages in two adjacent valleys in the county of Arges, in Muntenia.  Michael Pearson, being a solicitor, looked closely at the legal aspects of EU policy-making and how translation from one language to another can pervert its original writers’ intentions almost beyond recognition.

Other facets of Romania’s sheep farming business have floated to the surface of my research: shortly after the 1989 coup, Middle Eastern countries began buying live Romanian lambs, Syria being one of the largest importers; after 1989, Romanian sheep farmers began selling their fleeces to Turkish truck drivers who were on their way home from western Europe.   Apparently the wool was turned into building insulation, but the washing process, carried out with detergents in Romanian rivers and streams, has polluted the water.

But to return to Airyolland, as he – or could it be a she? – says, a lot of younger Romanian sheep farmers have moved their animals to lowland areas such as the Banat and Dobrogea where they can graze all year round without moving long distances between pastures.  What this will mean for ‘traditional’ Carpathian mountain farms is anybody’s guess – there are EU organisations and NGOs which exist to support the small (ie subsistence and semi-subsistence) hill farms because it’s accepted wisdom that extensive grazing by animals such as sheep, goats, cows and horses promotes biodiversity which in turn is good for air and water quality.  You only have to look at the species-rich hay meadows of the Pogany Havas region and others to see that for yourself.  But the relationship between farming as a business, people’s need for food, and the perception of environmental dangers is like a football being kicked about by thousands of different teams.  All I can do is try to understand the different pressures – and vested interests – to continue reading and looking, talking to farmers, researchers and, God love them, officials.

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