Thursday, March 24, 2016

Romanian Shepherds, Dogs and Sheep



A new threat in the mountains of Transylvania

BBC  By Lucy Ash Transylvania  24 March 2016


The tradition of transhumance - the seasonal movement of sheep - is still practised in Romania. But shepherds say a law restricting the number of sheepdogs they are allowed to use could threaten their way of life. 

"Do you want to see my house?" asks Ion at the door of the cowshed. I'm a bit nonplussed. We'd just been inside his house, on the sofa in the best room eating cake and poring over photo albums.
"No, no!" he says noticing my confusion. "I mean my real house!" He lifts a shaggy grey fleece off a wooden peg and throws it over his shoulders. The sleeveless sarica, as it's called, is made of four sheepskins sewn together. When I try it on, the cloak comes down to my ankles and is so heavy I can barely stand. But suddenly I'm immune to the knife sharp wind blowing off the mountains. "I slept in that even when it was snowing," says Ion. "Very cosy."

Ion and his wife Lenuta describe the long-distance walks they used to go on every year with their flocks of sheep between summer and winter pastures.


Lenuta shows me photos of donkeys carrying cooking pots, camping gear and canvas bags with small woolly heads peeking out. The newborn lambs get a free ride as their legs are too wobbly to keep up with the flock.

Romania is one of the few countries in Europe where this seasonal movement of livestock, or transhumance, is still practised but the tradition is dying out. New roads and the enclosure of privatised land after communism have made the walks covering hundreds of miles more difficult, even dangerous. Ion tells me he once needed several stitches after a landowner's security guard accused him of trespass and smashed him over the head. "These days you have to move your flock at night to stay out of trouble," he says.

"We just have these now," he adds as he pulls on the udders of a mud-splattered cow and milk squirts rhythmically into the pail. "We're too old to go on the road any more."

Fellow shepherd Dumitru Ciorgaru is no spring lamb either but he is reluctant to give up the life which he inherited from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who once took his sheep on expeditions as far as Crimean peninsula.

A tall, muscular man with a shock of grey hair, Dumitru has done well and over the years and quadrupled the size of his flock.


I am surprised to see so many shiny, top-of-the-range cars in this remote part of Transylvania. Ever since communist times, Poiana Sibiului and Jina have been famous for their wealthy sheep farmers. These isolated upland villages escaped collectivisation and some taxes under Ceausescu while the government guaranteed prices for the farmers' milk, meat and wool. So they flourished while most Romanians had to put up with empty shop shelves and power cuts. 

One shepherd built himself a black marble swimming pool which he filled with petrol because it was strictly rationed at the time. People from the poorer plateau below were so impressed by the brick houses and mirrored windows that they used to talk of "going to America" when they paid a visit.

Dumitru also has a large house in the nearby village of Tilisca with neoclassical columns outside the front door. But he tells me he rarely sleeps well there.

"If I don't see my sheep for more than two days and leave them with my helpers I can't stand it - I start having dreams about them," he says. "Do you have a favourite?" I ask, feeling a bit foolish. "Every shepherd has a favourite sheep - one you pick and name and feed from your hand. It is just like a woman when you like her, your eyes shine and the feeling goes straight to your heart."

But he admits he was never lucky with his chosen ones - they would either die from overeating or be snatched by wolves. "Maybe faith teaches you not to love one sheep, you have to love your whole flock," he adds.

A shepherd walks with his flock of sheep near the village of Cudalbi in Romania. AFP 

Dumitru may love his flock but he relies on his dogs for protection. The Carpathians are home to the highest number of brown bears in Europe and they often fancy snacking on sheep. Once a bear came at night and knocked him down but before it could rip him apart with its claws, the sheepdogs scared it off. 

His eyes fill with tears at the memory of his narrow escape. Not surprisingly he was unimpressed by a law, passed last summer under pressure from the influential hunting lobby, enforcing a limit on numbers of sheepdogs. 
 

I'm told about two-thirds of Romania's MPs are hunters and they claim the herding dogs attack deer, wild boar and other quarry. They want shepherds to have just one dog for grazing on the plain, two for hills and a maximum of three for mountain flocks. If shepherds flout the law, extra dogs can be shot. 

"How can they tell me how many dogs I need?" Dumitru snaps. "They don't stay out all night in the cold. Those hunters just come and shoot, have fun and eat well. They don't know what hard work is."

Last December up to 4,000 angry shepherds in sheepskins, waving their staffs and blowing horns surrounded the parliament in Bucharest. As they began climbing over the walls into the courtyard, mounted riot police sprayed them with tear gas. 

Image copyright Getty Images 

Dumitru boasts the shepherds could have stormed the building but restrained themselves. "Our MPs are like those mean and vicious bears," he says. "We have this saying: 'Bears go by and dogs bark' meaning politicians do whatever they want while unimportant people like us can only make a scandal."

The shepherds' noisy protest won them a temporary reprieve - the law has been suspended until April. 
But the row over Romania's countryside is far from over and just like the seasons, this threat to shepherds' livelihoods is bound to come around again. 

Image copyright Getty Images 

Dumitru boasts the shepherds could have stormed the building but restrained themselves. "Our MPs are like those mean and vicious bears," he says. "We have this saying: 'Bears go by and dogs bark' meaning politicians do whatever they want while unimportant people like us can only make a scandal."

The shepherds' noisy protest won them a temporary reprieve - the law has been suspended until April. But the row over Romania's countryside is far from over and just like the seasons, this threat to shepherds' livelihoods is bound to come around again.

Find out more
Listen to Romania: The Shepherds' Revolt on Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 24 March or catch up later online.
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The Turcana and Other Valachians

I'm about as interested in domestic animals as I am in non-domesticated ones. Sheep of various kinds have been discussed on Tet Zoo a few times, and right now I want to say a few brief things about a breed I recently saw on several occasions in Romania - the Turcana or Tsurcana, a highly [...]

scientificamerican.com  By Darren Naish on April 12, 2015

 
A long-fibred, crinkled fleece, spiralling horns, long, thin tail and black markings about the face and mouth. Characteristic features of Turcana sheep. Photo by Darren Naish.

I’m about as interested in domestic animals as I am in non-domesticated ones. Sheep of various kinds have been discussed on Tet Zoo a few times, and right now I want to say a few brief things about a breed I recently saw on several occasions in Romania – the Turcana or Tsurcana, a highly variable, hardy and economically important sheep that has a long, crinkled wool, spiralling horns and a narrow, dorsally convex face. This sheep is associated with the Carpathian Mountains and is farmed today in Romania, Ukraine, Moldavia, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Poland and the Balkan countries. The majority – over 4.2 million (Padeanu et al. 2004) of them (6 million according to some sources) – occur in Romania where they’ve been economically important for centuries. Over 50% of the sheep in Romania belong to this breed (Ilişiu et al. 2012).

A group of Turcana sheep. Shepherd and sheepdogs are nearby. Photo by Darren Naish.

Turcanas are white, grey or black-fleeced sheep with coarse wool, the longest hairs of which are 12-36 cm long (these long hairs grow over a denser underwool of thinner hairs, mostly 10-19 cm long). The similarity of the Turcana with the better-known Scottish blackface is often noted. Dark markings frequently surround the eyes and lips, and may also occur elsewhere on the face and also on the limbs. 

Rams are usually about 60-80 kg while ewes are 40-55 kg. About 50% of ewes have horns.

A Turcana sheep encountered in the field at Pui, Transylvania. This sheep is not three-legged - it's just a quirk of angle. Photo by Darren Naish.

Turcana milk is used for feta, yoghurt and various cheeses, their wool is often used in the manufacture of oriental carpets, and their meat is widely eaten and exported. They're said to be exceptionally hardy and resistant to disease and appear to be closely related to several other breeds that originated in the Baltic region (like the Skudde), the Mediterranean (like the Sardinian sheep and Pinzirita), and western Europe (like the Lincoln, Drysdale and Scottish blackface).

Several of these breeds belong to the so-called Valachian group of sheep, often termed ‘Zackel Group’ sheep. This latter name is apparently incorrect because it's based on the name used for spiral-horned sheep from Egypt, not Europe. The term ‘Valachian’ (used by Darwin during the 1860s, and probably by other authors of the time) perhaps refers to use of these sheep by the Valach (or Vlach) people of Romania and Moldova (Drăgănescu & Grosu 2010). The alternative spelling Wallachian is used as well, since the region of Romania concerned is historically termed Wallachia or Walachia.


Drăgănescu & Grosu's (2010) working hypothesis on the affinities of Valachian sheep. The paper is freely available online if you want to see a larger version of this diagram.  click to enlarge.


Valachian sheep are thought to have descended from ancient Early Scythian sheep, a coiled-horned, long-tailed sheep (sometimes termed Ovis aries rustica, sometimes O. a. longicauda) domesticated about 400 BCE. Drăgănescu & Grosu (2010) proposed that the Mediterranean and western European breeds mentioned above descended from an ancestral Early Scythian stock, as did the Balkan-Carpathian group that includes the Turcana and related Dinaric and Macedonian sheep breeds. The creation of numerous local variants or ‘sub-breeds’ of the Turcana and similar breeds – combined with confusion over the terminology used for of all these sheep – makes it different to work out how they’re related, and how they’ve been moved around by people. Maybe additional, molecular work has been done. Pariset et al. (2006) documented the presence of wide genetic variation on a range of sheep breeds including Turcanas, so genetic data has been collected and could be analysed. On that note, surprisingly little is written about the evolution and domestication history of modern sheep breeds: books and articles tend to discuss Neolithic sheep and the contribution that ancient mouflon (O. musimon and O. orientalis) made to the domestic sheep gene-pool, but that’s often as far as it goes.

There’s one more thing to say about the subject of sheep and Romania. Sheep and shepherding and the so-called transhumance system is ubiquitous in Romania, and the shepherd is a fundamental part of Romanian identity, this despite a history of unfair treatment, increasing urbanisation and economic challenge. Thanks to shepherds, dogs of several kinds have been moved across the land as well. I aim to talk about humans, dogs and transhumance at some point in the future. Incidentally, Romania's shepherding heritage has recently become better known to its more urbanised population thanks to Vodafone's 2014 advert featuring Ghita the Social Shepherd (Ghita is here on facebook and here on twitter).

Shepherds are a constant presence in the green spaces of Romania (and elsewhere in eastern Europe). These sheep are mostly Turcanas. Three dogs of mixed ancestry are in shot as well - two are corgi-crosses. Photo by Darren Naish.

Anyway, neat sheep.

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