Close encounter with a traditional shepherd in Transylvania

Sheep herding is one of the oldest way of making a livelihood and was once practiced throughout Eurasia. Nevertheless, in most of Western Europe the traditional way of shepherding was lost many years ago. In contrast, shepherding is still commonly practiced in Romania and shepherds have their own place in most of traditional rural societies. In my mind, I always saw shepherding as a romantic way of living. And yes maybe for a week or so it may seem the most wonderful occupation; however, while meeting the shepherds here in Romania, it becomes clear that their lives are harsh, financially and technologically poor and far away from being romantic.

Cow and sheep herding were long present in the Saxon landscapes of Transylvania (Romania). Transylvanian Saxons frequently hired Romanian shepherds to take care of their sheep because of the special relationship between them and their animals (i.e. sheep and dogs). Old records suggest that shepherds communicate with their animals in the true sense of the word.

During our recent fieldwork in the rural landscapes of Transylvania we often meet shepherds with their sheep and dogs. Sheep are always ‘clumped’ (contrary to those in e.g. Wales, UK, which are ‘scattered’ in the landscape) and one may have the feeling that an ambush will happen when passing near them. And indeed ambushes do happen. Not because of the sheep but because of the dogs, which are (i) many (i.e. up to 10), (ii) big, and (iii) apparently their only and strongest wish and preoccupation is to approach you and bite you (and unfortunately this does happen). Therefore having a walk alone in these landscapes – especially as foreigner – may be a volunteer adventure with unknown outcomes.

This behavior of sheep and dogs is understandable: sheep are attractive prey for large carnivores (which are still present in these landscapes) and dogs need to protect them. The picture above may suggest a ‘landscape of fear’ for the reader – but the situation may not be necessarily like this. More exactly, and as in many aspects of life, things may depend on the ‘leadership’. Here, the leader is, of course, the shepherd itself. If he wants, the shepherd can manage this conflict quit easily by controlling his dogs with just a few commands. With the right training even the more aggressive dogs can be kept under control.

Here I share a nice experience where we witnessed such a behavior of the shepherd during our fieldwork in Transylvania. While we were measuring trees in a wood pasture, a shepherd with his herd of sheep and a handful of big dogs crossed the wood pasture. Being a bit scared, we stopped and for a while we watched the shepherd leading his flock up the hill. The shepherd only needed a few words to command the dogs what to do and the dogs listened to the shepherd before making any move. One such command for the dogs was enough to chill them down and make them completely indifferent to us (i.e. they ran up and down and were playful, not even noticing our presence). A small (black) dog was probably the ‘right hand’ of the shepherd: after listening for very short commands he ran towards the front of herd and directed them towards the desired direction. All this was a truly unique experience for me: to meet a true shepherd that seemed in such harmony with his sheep and his dogs as described by the Saxons a century ago (and matching my original romantic ideas). I believe that it is hard to witness this traditional way of shepherding in other parts of Europe. However, I am also afraid that we might not be able to witness this for much longer in this area.

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