In December 2015, about four thousand Romanian ciobani (shepherds) gathered outside the parliament building in the capital, Bucharest, to demand immediate changes to the laws. They were so angry that at one point these normally peace-loving shepherds tried to enter the building. The only thing that stopped them were the police, who retaliated with tear gas.
Romania has the third largest flock in the EU and while there are sheep farms run on an industrial scale, many if not most of the country’s herds are small (under 50 head), reflecting the traditional but fast disappearing network of mixed farms and small-holdings that goes by the term ‘subsistence’ farm. I hate that name because it implies a shameful lack of financial probity, as though providing home-grown food for your family without making money out of it were the lowest form of activity known to man. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been studying Romanian shepherding history and practices for the past eight years, with the aim of turning my findings into a book.
But that’s another rant. Let’s stick to this one for now. Until the shepherds demo in Bucharest when parliament suspended it until April this year, there was a law that limited the numbers of dogs they could use to protect their flocks. In practice that meant two, three or four per thousand head of sheep, depending on whether they are working on the plains, in the foothills or the high mountains (the further they are from populated areas the more dogs they’re allowed). Hunters (who have a huge lobby in Romania) had permission to shoot sheepdogs if they thought there were too many with one flock, because of a belief that sheepdogs kill or frighten away their prey. Typical Romanian sheepdogs, known as Carpatini or Carpathians, are large, shaggy, and sometimes as unkempt as tramps, with hanks of coat hanging off their backs. Having been threatened by such snarling hounds in the Carpathian Mountains, I know how fearsome they can be. But it’s their job to guard their flocks from strangers and I’ve always found that as long as the shepherd is within earshot (and they always have been so far), and I stand still and stay calm while he calls off the dogs, no harm will ensue. And once they accept you as part of their clan, Carpathian sheepdogs will often become as soppy as Scooby Doo. The shepherds who gathered in Bucharest were also angry because of another law that forbids sheep farmers to graze their animals between December and April. As many sheep are kept outside all year round this is unworkable.
Our friend Ghita, famous across Romania as Ghita the Shepherd because of his appearance in a series of Vodafone ads, told me that it was impossible to control and protect a flock the size of his (c. 1500 head) with so few dogs. That was especially true when he was on the road, moving his animals between summer and winter pastures. When we went with Protv a few miles north of Cluj (Transylvania’s largest city) to film him during his autumn transhumance, Ghita told us that hunters had again shot one of his dogs. This seemed to be happening with sickening regularity but I was struck by how calmly Ghita was taking it – although I had seen his fatalism in action more directly when I inadvertently let one of his lambs get hit by a train.
Unable to travel to Romania myself I scoured the internet for breaking news, and facebook came up trumps: nowadays even sheep breeders’ societies have their own pages. On one of them I found a name I knew. Marcu Jura had caused journalists’ eyebrows to rise in 2010 because he abandoned a promising city career to return to a life of contemplation and graft on his parents’ sheep farm. Marcu had graduated in philosophy and anthropology at Sibiu’s Lucian Blaga university, and had been working at a desk job in the Romanian capital. His reasons for jacking it in were perfectly understandable to me: he couldn’t stand the superficiality and pollution, the hassle and pointlessness of the city and he craved the spiritual peace and clean air he’d found in the mountains as a boy. Now a successful (ie happy and contented though not necessarily rich) shepherd with a wife named Serin and two bonny children, Marcu writes thoughtful articles for Republica, an on-line newspaper. Both Marcu and Serin are articulate and passionate advocates of small farms.
It was Serin that I found on facebook. She had been posting furiously against the hunting lobby, adding facts and figures to boulster her indignation and expressing astonishment at the total lack of comprehension of how much traditional hill shepherds contribute not only to Romania’s economy but to its ecology too. After a wary start (I thought she was sussing me out) Serin sent me a copy of one of Marcu’s recent pieces for Republica. It explained why a shepherd needs his dogs, not just the mingy handful the government sees fit to allow, but a pack of 12 or 15 to provide continuity and back-up. Of course they should be properly-trained, properly-bred animals but their qualities don’t depend on any posh pedigree. Good, or even great sheepdogs, are working-class heroes. It wasn’t a dull, statistic ridden article but a paean (if that’s how you spell it) to the courage and nobility of his canine friends and a crashing indictment of college-trained but inexperienced ‘zootechnicians’ (the new in-word for farmer) and technocrats who sit in offices and think they know how to run a farm. I’m attaching a translation of Marcu’s piece because it’s so eloquent: MarcuSheepDogs
BBC journalist Lucy Ash asked if I could help her disentangle conflicting information about the size of the subsidies (called subventions in Romania) that sheep farmers are allowed per head of sheep, and the amount of money that they can claim for looking after pasture land the shepherds rent in disadvantaged areas (I couldn’t but knew from hearsay about the second point that tenant farmers often feel they do all the work while the proprietors get the money). Lucy was keen to sniff out evidence of EU funds getting into the wrong pockets and here again I was at a loss. But her interest reminded me of an interview Amalia Pavelescu and I made in 2010 with a family of transhumant shepherds while they were shearing their flock by hand in the rolling hinterland of Valea Hartibaciului, 30 miles north of Sibiu. Between the crisp snips of his clippers, the headman told us he knew for a fact that the mayor of a nearby commune had been claiming grants for non-existent sheep. Three years later, my friend Ana Maria Lar Crişan (head of a society of goat-breeders near Cluj) admitted it was common knowledge that certain mayors would funnel EU subsidies to their fatming cronies on community councils even if they no sheep at all. The only thing lacking was proof.
The shepherds’ protest did get somewhere. A new law allowing them to keep more dogs with their sheep and possibly extending their winter grazing rights is due to come into force in April 2016. Lucy Ash has been researching the issues for the first in a new series of Crossing Continents which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Thursday, 24th March at 11am. It’s called The Shepherds’ Revolt. Here’s a link to her piece on the issue for From Our Own Correspondent. There’s a shorter version of The Shepherds’ Revolt on Assignment (BBC world service).