I first visited Romania in October 1995. Between 1995 and 2000, I visited a further 2 times, and had many Romanian friends visit my farm over the same period.
Although I haven’t visited Romania for over ten years, I have maintained contact with some of the members of the farming community in Valcea County, who had become friends during this series of reciprocal visits.
As a hill sheep-farmer myself, I felt a strong affinity with the people I met in the villages and the nearby mountains, in the remote summer cabins and in the winter lowland pastures. I became particularly interested in the features of the seasonal movement of sheep to and from the mountains in the spring and autumn. Remember that 1995 was prior to Romania’s entry into the European Union, and that the fall of Ceaucescu and the Communist regime was recent history – only 5 years previous. I became interested in discovering how the practice of transhumance had endured through all the turmoil and upheaval of not only the recent years, but also the centuries of change and geo-political evolution – through feudal systems, through collectivised and ‘systematised ‘ eras, and how it would now endure during the seemingly chaotic period of privatisation and transition to the ‘ free ‘ market.
I had visited the immense, derelict buildings on the north shore of the Danube river in the middle of winter, where the sheep were overwintered, whilst the shepherds lived in makeshift huts or caravans, awaiting spring and the long walk back to the uplands. I visited the high mountains in the summer, where the family members cooperated to gather firewood to keep fires going in the crude wooden cabins; both to keep warm and to make the cheese from ewes’ milk every day for five months. I spoke to the lonely shepherds, who, with their dogs, watched the flocks pick over the peaks and rocky outcrops at over 2000 metres above seal level, watchful for predators and the capricious storms of the Carpathians. And I met the shepherds, travelling with their donkeys, dogs and a sack of polenta meal, as they moved the flocks across the fields, along road verges and disused ground on their way to the next overnight resting place, and ultimately to the destination; often taking over a month to get there.
So, I’ve just returned from my first visit to Romania for 12 years. Much has changed. Romania gained accession to the European Union in 2007, but changes to agriculture brought about by this are necessarily slow and take time to take effect. But what about the transhumance? I was interested to discover how more recent changes had affected the practice. Travelling by bicycle allows a perfect balance of speed and accessibility when it comes to visiting both rural and urban environments. I cycled over the highest road in Romania – The Transalpina – and also rode around the wonderful towns of Sibiu, Sighisoara and Brasov.
But going back to my interest in transhumance; my conclusions are that it may only be a few years before the scenes which I visited 15 years ago, will become scenes of the past. Increased traffic on roads, EU inspired regulations in respect of animal welfare and hygiene, and the increasing urbanisation of Romania, and in particular, the increasing aspirations of the youth, will all combine to eliminate this historic feature of Romanian agriculture. How drastic must the changes have been in the last ten years, that a practice that has endured through centuries, should so rapidly become so unsustainable or unattractive for whatever reason?
The seasonal movement of sheep over long distances to the mountain pastures will continue, but will diminish, as the rural economy becomes more monetized, and the practices of barter, exchange and the consumption of the brinza ( un-cured cheese ) in the local community, lessens.
The easier ( and quicker ) , movement of cattle from the nearby low-lying villages to the mountains will continue and increase, and the cheese will continue to be produced in a similar way for the time being. The sheep will be loaded onto road transport and the long distance movements accomplished in a day rather than weeks. The young shepherds will become livestock hauliers. Unless the cheese becomes a product which is ‘ marketed ‘ in the new ‘market-commodity ‘ world, then a significant element of the under-pinning of the system will be eroded.
As a consequence, I am certain that the skills which are attached to the maintenance of the tradition of long-distance overland movement of these ewe flocks, and the management associated with it, will not endure for much longer. I have seen many changes in Wales and sheep-farming here over the last 35 years, and there is a prosperity here now, where life was much harder and poorer in many ways when I arrived. So, not all change is bad, if we can take part in it and manage it properly.