Sheepdogs in Romania: blessing or curse?

By Ine Dorresteijn

When I first came to Lueneburg, I was warned by my colleagues to be careful with aggressive sheep dogs while doing fieldwork in Romania. My first reaction was, Yeah yeah you are overreacting, I grew up with dogs and I am not afraid of them and probably will not be in Romania either. Well my view on sheepdogs changed the first time I met them, and since that moment they do scare me. In fact when we see sheep in the distance, which can be several hundred meters away, we already start plotting how to get to our site and at the same time avoid running into the dogs.

 

C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie
C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie
 Sheepdogs are traditionally used in Romania to guard sheep against the attacks of bears and wolves. The landscape has still extensive forest that harbors bears and wolves despite the fact that the landscape is scattered with villages. Transylvania is one of the few regions in Europe where large carnivores and humans share the same landscape, and this can and does lead to conflicts from time to time. Keeping dogs to guard your sheep is the most effective way to prevent livestock depredation, and the majority of shepherds we interviewed indeed mentioned dogs as the key to keep sheep depredation low. Thus, dogs are a valuable asset to Romanian shepherd life and shepherds are willing to invest in dogs – one shepherd told me he had just bought two puppies of 300 euro each. Of course I encourage keeping this tradition alive and I have a lot of respect for the Romanian community of still being able to coexist with large carnivores without major conflicts (at least in our study region). Nevertheless, being surrounded by 10 angry dogs, frantically trying to keep a stick length between you and the dogs, while desperately hoping the shepherd will intervene and safe you from this situation does make me wonder whether Romanian sheep dogs are a blessing or a curse.
 A 11-month puppy (the larger dog) of C. l. familiaris barkius, currently not in action, with the son of the shepherd

A 11-month puppy (the larger dog) of C. l. familiaris barkius, currently not in action, with the son of the shepherd

To give you a better understanding on the different types of sheepdogs we encounter we started categorizing the dogs in the field. Among many, we created 4 new main subspecies of Canis lupus familiaris and classified them by the IUCN Red List as we saw fit: Canis lupus familiaris barkius (least concern), C. l. familiaris non-barkius (endangered), C. l. familiaris on roadius (least concern), and C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie (critically endangered). As you can see barking dogs are still very common. Now this can be a good thing as barking dogs don’t bite right. On the other hand it is quite a frightening sound when there are many dogs barking and they show their big teeth and give you the vibe that all they want to do is eat you. The on roadius type is a special character on its own, although maybe a little suicidal. In brief, they wait for you on the road and than they attack the car with the determination as if the car is a big monster that has to be eliminated (see video). Luckily, the car protects us against the dogs but the fear still exists that you might hit a dog and have to explain it to the shepherd. Or, just imagine you are making a nice bike-ride instead, that would change the feeling of encountering C. l. familiaris on roadius. On the positive side, the best dogs to encounter are the one of the pookie-pookie type. Basically they look big and angry when you meet them at first but than talking to them in a soft voice and calling them pookie-pookie changes the dog’s entire behavior (see picture). Suddenly he remembers he is also just a dog and starts wiggling the tail, rolling around and begging with big eyes to be petted. After some playing time and being covered in dog slobber you can happily move on without any further problems. These are really the best dog moments but unfortunately most of the time the dogs did not respond to pookie-pookie but rather to some harsh yelling and waving of the stick.

Now back to the question whether these dogs are a blessing or a curse, and what does this mean for biodiversity in the region. There is no doubt that they protect sheep from carnivores, which in turn might protect carnivores at the same time, as it is a way for shepherds to coexist with carnivores. On the other hand, hunters have complained that dogs hunt in the forests on deer, which could have negative impacts on their populations. This problem however could be mitigated by feeding dogs enough good quality food and train them to stay with the sheep or at the sheep camp. A second problem could arise that the presence of sheep dogs could hamper development strategies such as eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is often suggested as a sustainable viable option for rural development. Sheepdogs like barkius and on roadius, however, make hiking, biking, or outdoor activities difficult or an unpleasant experience for tourists. Instead biodiversity might benefit from low tourism as certain development, like the replacement of dirt roads into gravel/asphalt roads could reduce important habitat for (threatened) amphibians. Thus, whether dogs are more guardians of biodiversity or a threat to biodiversity to me is still an open question.

Overall, I still think that dogs in Romania are still a blessing although we should minimize the chances of them becoming a curse. For this to happen it will be necessary to find pro-active conservation strategies to maintain and increase the population of well-fed critically endangered C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie!

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4 thoughts on “Sheepdogs in Romania: blessing or curse?

  1. I don’t know if you have any knowledge about the scandinavian conflict between the indigenous people, the Sámi, and the conservation of large carnovores? The Sámi manages reindeer on more or less the same area as the small population of wild wolfs we have here (bears and wolverines is an issue as well, but for some reason not at all as contoversial as wolfs). This has become to what some people call a _wicked problem_.

    Do you think it would be a possible solution to provide well-trained sheepdogs to guard the reindeer? I realize that the spread out behaviour of reindeer might be a problem, but that could be compensated with more dogs. It’s an idea I haven’t heard much and it would be interesting to hear your oppinion!

    /Zimon

  2. Hi Zimon,

    It should be a feasible solution. The Romanian sheepdogs are very well familiar with defending live stock and also, due to still guarding the flocks, they know how to efficiently approach the wolves and bears.

    If you look for old lines of still tested shepherds, you fill find that usually 3 dogs would defend a flock of 300+ deficiently. Another skill, gained with the years, is to stay around the LS and just circle them around waiting for the predator to approach, instead of chasing everything off and leaving the flocks unguarded.

    Should you want to discuss more, please do inbox me.

  3. Pingback: 2015 Grateful 17 | Unpacking my 'bottom drawer' in Budapest

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