Being a shepherd is a way of living
Location: Valverde de la Sierra – Spain,
Story by: Juan Miguel Diaz
Juan Miguel Diaz was, in his own words, born as a shepherd. He grew up in Extremadura, an area in Spain where wolves had disappeared and shepherds have abandoned the traditional measures to avoid damages. He had to learn how to work in a wolf-area when he moved to León, one of the areas with the highest wolf densities in Spain. He is a great example of how shepherds can adapt to wolf presence in recently recolonized areas, as he did. For him, the wolf is not the biggest threaten for extensive farming, a way of living which he is afraid of losing due to the hard working conditions and low profitability.
Due to a strict anti-vermin law back in the 50’s, the wolf disappeared in the most of the Spanish territory. However, the species resisted in the North of the river Douro, where one of the main farming activities is sheep shepherding. Both, shepherds and wolf, have evolved together in this region and luckily ancestral knowledge and techniques to coexist with the species have survived too. After a change in the national law and the protection coming from the Habitats Directive, wolf populations have slightly recovered some of their previous territories, but, unfortunately, ancestral shepherd’s knowledge on coexistence was already lost.
Juan Miguel Diaz is a good example on how this can be learnt. He grew up in Extremadura, one of those regions where the wolf disappeared long time ago, where he learnt everything he knows about sheep from this grandfather… except, obviously, how to avoid wolf damages.
We, as trashumant shepherds spend summer in the North of Spain, where fresh pastures can still be found, and winter in the South regions, to avoid the hard weather conditions. The first year I worked in León, North of the river Douro, the wolves killed 121 sheep of our 1000-sheep flock. Neither me, nor my dogs knew anything about the wolf, we were not prepared and I had to learn from mistakes.
The next year, I got good mastiffs, the breed of livestock guardian dogs typical from the area and started using other management tools as electric fences. I have not had any other issue since then, also thanks to my presence with the sheep. For me, coexisting with wolves is the shepherd’s responsibility, it is a matter of being professional and “being where you have to be”.
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.
However, I am really concerned about losing my way of living. I was “born shepherd” and that is what I would like to do “forever and a day”.
It is a hard job and people do not want it. The wolf is often blamed as the scapegoat but it is important that society understand all the underlying problems that the rural environment is facing to be able to solve them.