Carpathian Sheep Walk - a story

It's 2012 and dusk is falling in a valley half way up the Carpathian Mountains. This mountain chain is the most distinctive feature of Romania's landscape. Most of its 1700 km length lies in Romania, where it doubles back on itself, printing a > shape on the map like a cattle brand. The > has unequal arms: from the east-facing point, the shorter one lies to the south, and the longer one makes a graceful arc that veers north, then west.

Valea Cernei (nine hundred metres above sea level, contours shallow and vegetation of temperate meadow grass and woodland) lies on the shorter arm, about 30 kms to the south of the city of Sibiu. But on this October evening, the dreaming city of Sibiu might be a thousand kilometres away. High above, at the top of Mount Cindrel, the first autumn snows are spiralling lazily across its open meadows with a deadly softness.

Down here in the valley, a young shepherd has gathered his flock before the autumn transhumance. His animals move around him in a shifting, murmuring circle. The fading light throws a blue veil over the rounded hills, their sandy soils a reminder that this mountainous landscape once lay at the bottom of a shallow, inland sea. Dotted around its bare undulations are clumps of larch and oak. Everything is very dry: it has not rained in earnest here for two years. Climate change has been noticeably affecting Romania's farmers since the early 2000s but despite the efforts of ecologists and environmental activists, the political landscape isn't ready for it. For the Romanians who are voicing all this, it feels like shouting in the dark.

The shepherd is not alone with his sheep. His father is there along with two hired men. In his day, the shepherd's father - tati, as he calls him – would make the same journey with his whole family. But that was before fast motorways, property fences and hunting interests barred their route. The shepherd's mental image of the herdsmen's pathways, used for centuries but never registered on any maps, has become a nightmarish tangle of obstructions.

Before the Revolution in 1989, most of Romania's farmland belonged to Collective and State Farms, and with a little persuasion – private gifts made in the right places - herders could move their flocks across country with relative ease. Romania is famous for its lack of fences; it's what strikes most westerners about the country in the first place. After the Communist regime officially ended, legal action has restored some properties to their pre-Communist owners, but the overall result of opening up to the free market has been a closing-in of the land. Whether or not this is a good thing, and whether developing the land by building huge villas, biotechnology complexes, mobile phone outlets and science parks means more prosperity and freedom for more people is a question that smacks farmers who practice transhumance in the face. The elephants in the room are agricultural policies, though, and the rise of factory farming as a way of feeding the world. Up here in Valea Cernei, where apart from the nagging murmurs of sheep, the peace is largely undisturbed, it is easy to forget that humans and their livestock outweigh all the other animals on earth. It's easy to forget in this tranquil corner that the world's population is expanding so fast that the planet is struggling to support it. It's easy to forget that vast areas of our Earth are in crisis because of a lack of water and food, and that huge numbers of people are being forced to leave their homes to find livelihoods elsewhere, putting pressure on all of us to respond, to care, to act.

What difference does this make to our young shepherd, trying to make his future in post-communist, European Unionised, NATO-supporting Romania?

Getting ready has taken all day. The shepherd has had to pack enough gear for four people who will be more or less out of reach for six weeks, far from shops, hospitals and bars. First aid equipment, medicines, repair kits, LED torches, a car battery (for charging mobile phones), heavy cloaks to shelter and sleep in, spare clothes, water containers, sacks of maize flour and potatoes, lard and onions, jars of coffee, a few eating utensils (not many because they mostly eat with their fingers). A cauldron and tripod. All of this stuff has been assembled in piles, and checked, checked again. If anything is missing, it has been fetched from whichever shop is closest – which is sometimes 20 km away. Only then have the items been tucked into deep, thick plastic panniers and slung over the donkeys' backs. The bags have been carefully balanced and strapped on as securely as possible. If they are not equally weighted or tight enough, they could slip to one side or the other, and pull the strong, little animals right off their sure-footed hooves. Too tight and they will not be able to breathe. It is not a simple job. Once the panniers are in place, bright blue tarpaulins are thrown over the top. They reach almost to the ground, so the creatures look shrouded.

It is almost night. Another flock and its owner have joined the first. On the road, there is safety in numbers. Crowded together in two cohorts, the ewes make a lot of noise. Most of them are pregnant. As the four herders gather themselves, stretching their legs and throwing their cigarettes away, the shepherd's father looks on without moving a muscle. This time he will not be going with them. For a second or two, father and son face each other without a word, freeze-framed in the gentian light. The young shepherd grips his father's hands, and they exchange a religious blessing.

And the shepherd turns and walks away, leading his animals into the dark.

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