A Shepherd with heart and soul
Location: Brusno – Slovakia,
Story by: Peter Hatala
Peter Hatala has nearly 50 years of experience in shepherding and loves sheep as much as dogs. He uses traditional methods and trains his Slovakian Čuvač dogs to protect the herd. This story is the extract of an interview that was first published in CDP News 19.
Sometimes I have the impression that I was born a shepherd! From the age of eight I started to herd sheep during my free time. I spent my holidays and weekends with the sheep outside, alone in some abandoned pastures. Of course, I got some money for my work but, beside this, I was simply happy with this job. After I finished school aged 18, I fully dedicated my life to this work.
“I love the sheep for how they are and that I make a living from them. And I love the dogs as my companions and that they protect me and my animals.”
During my childhood I trained and bred various dogs at the sheep camp. Sometimes I took them home, but my parents didn’t like it. During my military service, I worked with German shepherd dogs and can now compare various breeds of dogs and their working abilities. Since 1984 I’ve had my own herding and livestock guarding dogs and also breed them.
Two of them possibly even saved my life once: One night I was walking back from the pasture to the sheep-camp (salaš in Slovak) after dark. I had to pass a very dense forest and suddenly there was a bear behind me. It was roaring at me and I could smell its body. I started to run, but somehow slipped, fell and hit my mouth on my shepherd stick. I broke some teeth and started to bleed. It was painful and I felt helpless. Suddenly, I spotted two white creatures in the pitch darkness: my livestock guarding dogs (Slovak Čuvač). They chased the bear away. Till today, I am extremely thankful to these two dogs.
“One should never forget: attacks by wolves are more serious. I always say that bears are wise, but wolves are professors.”
On average, I herd around 300 – 400 sheep, exceptionally up to 600 sheep. You really need very good, brave dogs to protect your livestock. That’s why I always have between two and seven dogs with me. The number of dogs depends on various factors including the place where I go with the sheep, the weather conditions, the situation with wolves, the numbers of tourists and the dogs themselves. I’ve seen them actively chasing away attacking wolves and bears. Sometimes I also saw that very strong dogs just stood at the forest edge and barked without joining an active chase, which was enough, too. Since 2006, I have nearly no losses due to predators except one ewe and one lamb.
Livestock Guarding Dogs
Livestock guarding dogs defend the herd against attacks by wolves. They feel like part of the herd and settle down with the pet owner. The dogs live permanently outside and defend “their” herd against all intruders from the outside. Well-trained livestock protection dogs are no danger to walkers and hikers, but these should lead their dogs on a leash. To make this work, well trained herd protection dogs are required, which are adapted to the type of grazing by the livestock. This requires regular checks made by experienced people so that the dogs do not start to behave incorrectly.
I never thought about changing my profession, but the future of shepherding in my region is simply bad. It is difficult and responsible work and also very time-consuming. Bears and wolves are not directly responsible for many sheep farms closing. This is rather due to people. During recent years, there are more and more people in the forest, mainly for recreational purposes like mountain biking, hiking, mushrooming etc. Such people are not willing to take care about either sheep or dogs. They walk through my flock and start to beat the livestock guarding dogs if they bark at them. Mountain bikers and motorcyclists even kill your sheep if they get in their way. Arrogant people are much more destructive than predators.