A shepherd’s story

It was Radu who started it. A search for a meaning in all the mess. He did it through firelight and fantasy, the story-teller’s way. “Few people know that shepherds sailed round the world long before the Vikings discovered America, before the Irish crossed the Red Sea in their coracles or Magellan got stuck in his straits. It would have been about the same time as the Polynesians were setting off on their balsa rafts to find the promised land of Africa, a little after the time that Jonah got a lift in the whale. And thinking about it, it must have been long, long before the Flood which landed Indo-Europeans within spitting distance of the Atlantic – and a good deal earlier than Captain Cook. ” Radu looked round at his companions to see how his tale was going down. The embers of their recent meal lit their faces from below, hiding the expressions in their eyes, but nobody made any objections. So he continued.

“Shepherds from our village rode the wide oceans on inflated sheep skins. They brought back spices from India, potatoes from South America, tobacco from Tobago and jade from Peking. They married Cherokee squaws and Siberian Maris; the Samis were their blood brothers and sisters and their cousins were Inuit and Aborigines. When they came home they bred the handsome Turcana sheep which they found on the mountainsides of Nepal. “

“And they taught the Russians to make salt cheese… Yes, we know”. Ilie could bear it no longer: Radu’s flights of imagination made him writhe – the boy went too far. “Come on, we’ve got to get going”.

It was late January in the north west Tranylsvanian county of Salaj. The shepherds were hired men, not owners of sheep. In Romanian they were politely called ciobani angajati, but their reputation was bad and many people regarded them as riffraff, drifters and ne’er do wells. They worked for a monthly wage packet which varied according to their duties: the sterpari, those in charge of the non-breeding ewes and rams got most because they had the worst job, entailing the longest walks to pastures and the loneliest vigils– and they got their clothes, cigarettes, and beer thrown in. Ilie complained behind Vlad’s back that their pay was rotten: 300 Euros a month compared to the princely 1200 Euros he had earned in Spain. “And the conditions were better there, too: there you had a roof over your head at night, none of this sleeping out in all weathers”.

Their boss’s father Dan was the baciu, the head cheese-maker. Everyone except him took a hand in the milking; Dan’s fingers were too arthritic to manage these days. It took two of them two hours to milk 600 ewes; this had to be done three times a day in early summer, then it tailed off to two – when the late summer milk got fattier – then to one until the milk dried up altogether in September.

Ilie was not a mean character, despite his drinking. He thought about their boss, Vlad: he was a fair man but prone to outbursts of rage which cowed everyone within hearing, including, especially, the dogs, whom most of the men treated like curs.

Radu and the others separated for the night: he and Ilie would take the first watch while Florin and Dinu dossed by the ashes, gaining what little heat they could from the embers and wrapping up tightly in their cojoace, the long sheepskin cloaks which gave them a prehistoric air. Sleep would be short, even though they were no longer on the road: the freak winters had brought bears out of hibernation: in the autumn a bear had attacked a lone shepherd in the Cindrel Massif, near their summer pastures, and before the snow had fallen, a bear took two piglets out of a village orchard, climbing over the fence to get at them. Kept active by the warmer air, and driven down from the high forests by the drought which made their usual prey scarcer, the gadina, the predators, were hungry. So far this winter, in the Almaş Valley where their boss, Vlad, had his winter grazing, wolves had killed 180 lambs and eight goats. They were so hungry they had even torn someone’s guard dog to pieces; it had had no chance being tied by the neck to a length of chain.

It was relentless, the shepherd’s life. It demanded a special kind of self-reliance – or misanthropy – to spend so many hours on your own. It was no place for the faint-hearted. Although he looked no more than a child, Radu revelled in it. He was small for his 21 years and looked half that age. His bearded face was heart-shaped, his nose snubbed and his mouth as perfectly drawn as a baby’s. As if contradicting these innocent features, his brows made a thick, single line, resembling a cross between a cherub and Genghis Khan. Despising school, he had been with Vlad for eight years, and shepherding was in his blood. Whether he would stay with his boss was anyone’s guess. In his imaginings, he strayed further than the horizon, far beyond the Carpathian Mountains that rose like magisterial barriers to the north, east and south.

These conflicting strains showed in his character. Radu was articulate but retiring. He could not only spin a yarn but had an ability to ask the most awkward questions, disconcerting his interlocutors who expected his mind to show the same childlike simplicity as his face. In his own words, he had ‘retras la oile’ – withdrawn into the shepherd’s life as a hermit might withdraw to a cave.

Radu’s recent background was this: he had served a prison sentence for attempted murder. Two years earlier, he and Dan were driving half of Vlad’s flock towards their winter pastures at the end of a six-week trek from the mountains in the south. After two weeks together, Vlad, Ilie and Dinu had gone a different way to keep the non-breeding ewes and the rams separate from the manzarii, the females who would start giving birth in February. Vlad’s group took with them six of the seven donkeys which carried their supplies, and four of the remaining five dogs – one had been shot by hunters on the edge of a village near Cluj.

Sheep feed in fits and starts, you cannot hurry them and they must eat as they move. Sometimes this leads to misunderstandings. On this occasion, there had been an argument over the land they were grazing. It was dusk and a farmer, guarding a precious half hectare of lucerne which like much of Romania’s farmland was unfenced, thought the ewes had strayed over it. Normally, Vlad made sure that their road was clear for his animals by agreements with landowners and payments of rent. In the old days the ways had been much clearer, and in the Communist period, shepherds had a virtually free hand to pasture their flocks where they wanted. Memories of letting the flock loose on unharvested maize and wheat from the collective farms were a bitter glow in Vlad’s mind: he had walked these roads since he was eight, when his mother as well as his father had gone dupa coda oilor – after the sheep’s tails. For all he knew, they were following in a tradition that was as old as time, transhuming as their Mesolithic forebears might have done.

Since the Revolution, small parcels of nationalised land had been given back to private owners if they could produce papers to prove their rights to it. The amounts varied from one to ten hectares: Romania had become a patchwork of strips supporting individual families. Agribusiness was on its way but the landscape still had a medieval aspect, and small farmers felt especially vulnerable. Rumour had it that more land had been restored in Romania than actually existed but one of the effects of these restitutions was to break up the ancient transhumant routes which no maps had ever legalised, and with every year that passed more quarrels took place. The farmer, re-enacting a long-hallowed conflict between ploughman and shepherd, had not waited for an explanation and he had knocked Dan senseless. Radu -who later swore on oath that the sheep were nowhere near the lucerne – paid the farmer back in the only way he knew: he raised his thick staff and whacked him with all the fury of outraged loyalty. First, he broke the man’s forearm – the smallholder had raised it to defend his head – then Radu bashed him on the side of his cranium. The farmer went down without a murmur.

In jail, Radu grew up. They moved him from place to place so he could not make friendships; they permitted him ‘counselling’ that consisted of a few five-minute sessions with a bored psychologist who trotted out theories like a slot machine. Vlad paid for a lawyer and told Radu to read the Bible. “I was somewhere between God and the Devil”, he said to the British woman who wandered into his orbit, looking for picturesque snippets to feed to a travel magazine.

The farmer survived. Radu’s 15 year sentence was commuted to 18 months. Vlad and Dan took him back. “Si m-am retras la oile, unde e libertate si linistie. M-am selbaticit. Asta e”. (“And I retreated to the sheep, where it’s free, peaceful and quiet. I’ve got a bit wild. That’s how it is with us”. He gave the travel writer his bewitching, heart-shaped smile but his eyes were narrowed; they had the cold, calculating ferocity of a lynx. The woman’s interest had tickled him, but he was wary of intruders: she was certain to write drivel.


News report: two hired shepherds murdered a sheep farmer in western Transylvania who had employed them to look after his animals. At their trial, the men stated that they had killed him because he had refused to raise their wages.

News report: a philosophy graduate from Sibiu has given up his university research job to raise sheep in the Orastie Mountains; he has a blog so that fans can stay up to date with his activities.

News report: a Chinese company has bought a flock of 5000 sheep in Oltenia, southern Romania. The animals will not be exported to China but kept where they are, to supply the firm with carcases as and when required.

Statement from the Ministry of Agriculture: Romania exports two thirds of its lambs live to the Middle East. Syria is the largest national consumer of Romanian lambs. (Since the ‘Arab spring’, sales of Romanian lambs to the Middle East have fallen.)

MAFF report: the EU will pay a subvention of 23 lei (about £4.30) per head of sheep to farmers who graze their animals for more than 90 days a year in defavourised, highland areas. (*This figure is from January 2018.)

MAFF report: Romanian sheep farmers may only walk their sheep so many kilometres a day.

Rumour or truth? Sheepfarmers who are caught walking their sheep across county boundaries will be fined at the rate of 2000 E a time.

News report: a hired shepherd raped a 65 year old village woman at the end of the summer, which he had spent on his own with the animals in the mountains.

“We love this life”, quoted by three sheep farmers whom the author met in 2012; all were in their twenties and thirties and were still doing long distance transhumance. Hired shepherds’ responses are usually more guarded.

Overheard: A sheep farmer from Cluj county wanted to retire and sold all of his 600 sheep. Three months later, he bought some more. He told his friends, “I couldn’t live without them”.


Transhumance, n., the seasonal movement of animals between pastures. To cross the ground, to change location, in effect, to move from one place to another. Transhumance is not like nomadism, because it assumes a going and a coming back. To poets, the word sounds like transmigration, a soul thing.

Nobody knows when it started, but domesticated herds of goats and sheep picked their delicate way across the dry hills of the Middle East long before Christ was associated with the innocence of lambs. It was the Greeks and the Romans who brought sheep to Europe. The practice crept northwards and westwards from the south and east. Romanians, whose antecedants were Dacians and Celts and Romans, were a pastoral people with firm roots in the Carpathian Mountains and on the Transylvanian Plateau before the Slavs and Tatars and Hungarians arrived to add spice to their blood. There are stone-built shepherds’ huts in the Carpathians that take their design from Mesolithic dwellings.

From those eyries, Romania’s pastoral traditions must have begun. They are still alive, linking the distant past with the present. But nobody knows for sure when the treks began. Documents show Wallach shepherds wintering their flocks in Poland and eastern Moravia as long ago as the 1450s. In the late 18th century they were crossing the Danube and spreading across Turkish-held Dobrogea; between then and the 1950s, sheep farmers from the Southern Carpathians had established trails down through Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece; they spread east to southern Russia, the Crimea and the Caucasus; more conservatively they settled in the Banat and Crisana. Romanian shepherds from Transylvania helped bring news and knowledge to the mountain villages; returning with books after selling their sheep in the south, their adventurousness sparked a thirst for learning and for freedom; shepherds were the heralds of political change, leading to emancipation for the ones who downtrodden under the Hapsburgs and the Hungarian landowners. Transhumance had a heyday in the mid-19th century. Shepherds from the high mountain villages of Poiana Sibiului, Jina, Rod and Tilisca ran flocks of 25,000 head, and in the long winters it made sense to take advantage of pastures that were free even if far away. Emile de Martonne watched them in Dobrogea, half hidden by the tall, waving grasslands nobody else wanted. Shepherding is one of Romania’s most basic activities, sanctified by tradition, ingrained in religion.

Romanians transhume without animals. Hundreds of thousands of workers leave their homes and families to make a living abroad. This human transhumance is often seasonal: many of the people involved do agricultural or hotel work in Italy, Spain or Germany where they can make as much in two or three months as they would in a whole year in their own country. Since the economic crisis of 2008, Spain and Italy are no longer so welcoming or attractive but Germany still provides a chance. Romanians have started coming to Britain, too, though it is further away and the prospects unguaranteed.

The movement began shortly after the Revolution out of economic necessity: factories were closing; the West beckoned with promises of prosperity and well-being. People had escaped the Communist regime before, seeking political asylum; but after 1989 when they were in theory free but desperate for jobs, and before the European Union embraced Romania too, they went to western Europe illegally, risking their lives by travelling under trains, in airless truck containers, even in the holds of aircraft. The lucky ones made money and returned; the cliché is that they spent their wealth on ostentatious villas and top of the range cars. Their children either went with them or, more often, remained behind with grandparents.

This people drain has left something between 4 and 5 million of working age in Romania itself from a dwindling population; when last counted it had fallen from 23 to just under 20 million.


There is a cameraderie between shepherds who go on the road, like that between sailors on ocean voyages, or between astronauts. They rely on each other absolutely. Even though they use mobile phones – loading car batteries along with all the other gear they need onto donkeys – they avoid roads and human habitations wherever possible, and cannot be sure of getting help when they need it. Dangers are legion. Sheep can get eaten by wolves, run over by trains, injured by traffic, drowned in rivers or buried in snow. People can be hostile, authorities unsympathetic and obtuse. Illness and disease can attack men and animals at any time. Lack of rain makes grazing scarce; water wells may be contaminated or dry, rivers and streams low, springs hard to find. The shepherds themselves are fallible – as shown above, hired men sometimes turn nasty. They can get drunk, they can steal, they can get fed up and vanish without explanation, leaving their bosses in charge of hundreds of wilful animals. A few commit murder. Even so, sheep owners have to trust their employees, to take a chance, and these relationships can be as deep as brotherhood.


This story was written in 2014, since when Romanian migration to Britain has risen, and then begun to fall again, inevitably, with the prospect of Brexit.

References to news reports and government subsidies in this story are based on real sources, the only problem is that in the excitement of discovery, the author forgot to record exactly what they were.

MAFF refers to the old British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which has long since been superceded by Defra. (MAFF was dissolved in 2002.)

The photo at the top was taken in a summer kitchen belonging to the Avram family of Jina. My thanks to them for their kindness and hospitality.

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