Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mountain men's life under threat

Shepherds of the Transylvanian peaks face EU rules that may rob them of their traditional work

Daniel McLaughlin in Piatra Craiului, Romania
Sunday June 24, 2007


The huge white dogs are used to fending off wolves, bears and lynx, and they erupt when a stranger approaches the shepherds' camp high in the mountains of Transylvania.

The men call them off with shouts and whistles and return to milking their flock, but remain alert for one dreaded visitor - a government inspector who could end their ancient way of life at a stroke. The Transylvanian shepherds make cheese, milk and butter in the same way as their ancestors, but since Romania joined the European Union last January, time is running out for these long-held traditions.

The EU wants to stop the sale of dairy products made without modern sterilisation, cooling and transportation equipment - an impossibility for poor men who eke out a living in a wild and beautiful place where running water means a mountain stream and electricity only flows in the lightning that crackles over their pastures.

'I've been doing this 43 years and it hasn't changed,' said Aurel Cotinghi in the pungent little cabin where he makes cheese, as his two sons continue milking outside. 'Now I suppose things will change, but no one has explained it properly to us. Sometime, someone will have to tell us what to do or they will just close us down.'

Farming groups say the Romanian government has done nothing to prepare them for the shock of joining the EU, or to help avert a ban on vital sales of dairy products domestically or in lucrative foreign markets.

'Lots of young people have left to go to Italy and Spain and 14 shepherds in this area have just left to pick cucumbers in Germany,' says Eugen Gontea, head of the local farmers' association.

'Measures adopted by our officials have completely paralysed the shepherds. They are scared and panicking. They've taken steps to forbid the seasonal movement of livestock, which applies to 80 per cent of our sheep, and 40 per cent of shepherds aren't milking their sheep now because they fear they won't be able to sell the cheese.'

Many Romanian farmers fear the government wants to wipe out smallholders and create a series of 'super-farms' that meet EU norms; and they suspect that Brussels would like to eradicate the small-scale dairy producer, to open the Romanian market to imports.

A deadline for farmers to comply with EU food safety standards - the end of this month - has been postponed until the end of December. But that will make little difference unless Romania launches a massive education and investment drive in its mountains.

'We need investment to overcome our natural hardships: no access roads or infrastructure, no electricity, rugged terrain where transport can only be by donkey and horse, shepherds taking sheep 60 miles to pasture,' said Gontea.

'Wolves and bears take the sheep and attack shepherds. Four were attacked and one died last year,' he said. 'Few young men want this work and girls won't marry those that do. Who'd be mad enough to go into the mountains in these circumstances?'

The shepherds' hard lives are shaped by landscape, the elements, tradition and superstition and follow a cycle that their remote forbears would easily recognise. They gather sheep and cows in late April or early May from village smallholdings and backyard pens and lead them up through forests and orchid-strewn meadows to lush pastures beneath the mountain peaks.

There they build a wooden stockade for the sheep and use their milk to make several types of cheese in the small shack that is their only protection from sun, wind and fierce summer storms.

Then they wrap the salty cheese in softened pine bark to make packages for livestock owners and village markets, where the shepherds arrive on carts drawn by horses and donkeys that wear red pom-poms on their heads to ward off the 'evil eye'.

In early autumn, the animals are taken to lower pastures and, when the first snow falls, the shepherds drive them back through the villages and return them to their owners, using a tag or a paint-marked rump to identify where they came from back in springtime.

For some shepherds and sheep, however, the journey is just beginning: livestock owners who do not have enough hay to feed their animals through winter leave them with the shepherds, who move across the country building huge flocks that they drive south to warmer pastures, often halting traffic for hours on major roads as they cross.

Watching over some 280 sheep and 40 cows in the pastures beneath the 2,000-metre Piatra Craiului mountains, Cotinghi says he gets around £3,000 from their owners to look after them for six months. It is a meagre wage for four shepherds to share, especially if they have to compensate an owner for an animal killed by a predator.

'If we lose the sheep from the mountains, we have lost the mountains: the whole ecosystem will be destroyed and the wild animals will come to villages looking for food,' said Gontea. For Cotinghi's 19-year-old son Bogdan there is little to recommend this tough existence. 'Perhaps I'll be a carpenter,' he said as his father prepared a lunch of bread, cheese and spring onions. 'There's no way I'm doing this for the rest of my life.'

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