Today for our EU Wovember Words post we are in Romania where the word for sheep is oaie, and the word for wool is lână.
To begin with the sheep (info from this report);
In Romania there are two autochthon native breeds: Turcana, named also Zackel (“mountain peasant”, “Romanian”) or Walachian (“Romanian”), is the sheep of Sibiu transhumant shepherds, and Tsigai, the sheep of Braov and Covasna transhumant shepherds. Both are well adapted to the conditions of Romania, but Turcana may be better adapted to the alpine pasture. Tsigai is a medium-wool breed, with good milk and good meat production. Turcana, a long coarse-wool breed, have good milk production, but poor meat production. From the Romanian breeds formed by crossing, Romanian merino breeds (Transylvanian Merino, Merino of Palas, Merino of Cluj) and Karakul are now more important from a numerical point of view. Crossbreeds are scattered almost all over the country.
Both these sheep breeds and their history are closely tied to transhumant – that is, semi-nomadic pastoral traditions – which are, in turn, closely connected to the geology and terrain of the Carpathian Mountains. This is the second-longest mountain range in Europe; it is a 932 mile long chain of mountains curving its way from the Czech Republic in the northwest through Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine to Romania and Serbia. The highest range within the Carpathians is the Tatras, on the border of Slovakia and Poland; the second-highest range is the Southern Carpathians in Romania.
We wrote about the pastoralism of the Tatras in our piece about Poland; there, as in Romania, the landscape and the system of shepherding are closely intertwined, and a practice of moving sheep down or through the mountains to winter pastures is deeply embedded in the life of the mountains.
In an amazing article entitled “walking with shepherds“, conservationist and author Paul White writes:
Transhumance has been practised in Transylvania for more than a thousand years, supported by tried and tested methods of pastoral animal husbandry. A high level of supervision is required by both shepherds and dogs to protect grazing flocks from predation by large numbers of brown bears and wolves that roam across the Carpathian mountains.
Local transhumant shepherds have taught me some valuable lessons in conservation who view the mountains and forests as their bread basket, something to be nurtured and cared for, as without it they are fully aware their traditional way of life would soon end. They see the wolves and brown bears as part of that environment and believe that they have equal right to be there. When sheep and goats are taken, they don’t call for predators to be culled as they expect some losses throughout the year. They may not be aware of it but these pastoral shepherds best demonstrate the harmony that is possible between humans, wildlife and environment.
Traditional transhumant shepherding of this kind is rarely seen in western Europe, requiring tough and hardy characters to protect their livestock from bears and wolves from early spring to late autumn. They move through forest covered mountains to open clearings rich in grass and meadow flowers. Once grazed the shepherds move on leaving the meadow layered with droppings fertilising the soil ready for fresh growth. The meat, milk and cheese produced from this chemical free grazing is delicious and truly organic. Good quality food production in harmony with the environment is not a new concept as these shepherds and their ancestors have aptly proved. It took me several years of observation and documentation to fully understand this truly refined system, the way it all works and the way it is designed to coincide with the seasons. Nothing is wasted and the footprint the shepherds leave behind is minimal.
He also says – and this is very interesting in terms of the current politics of Brexit:
For the first time in my life I found cheese prepared on location right next to the flock, and then packaged in tree bark! This end product is not “treated” with chemicals, pasteurised or refined in any way. Unfortunately, this is unacceptable to the bureaucrats in Brussels and a raft of EU regulations have been imposed on these pastoral shepherds since Romania joined the European Union. Much higher standards of hygiene and packaging are now required which are simply unaffordable for most shepherds, hence their rapid decline in numbers. This is an unfathomable state of affairs to local villagers that have thrived on this food for generations. If anything, the natural microbes found in this cheese actually stimulates the immune system. I believe that if over regulation is allowed to destroy this way of life, we will lose some of the most culturally diverse customs and people that still exist on the fringes of “civilised” Europe.
Caroline – the author of an incredible blog called Carpathian Sheep Walk – has written about some other political clashes between the ancient Carpathian system of transhumant pastoralism and EU bureaucracy [full article here]:
In December 2015, about four thousand Romanian ciobani (shepherds) gathered outside the parliament building in the capital, Bucharest, to demand immediate changes to the laws. They were so angry that at one point these normally peace-loving shepherds tried to enter the building. The only thing that stopped them were the police, who retaliated with tear gas.
Romania has the third largest flock in the EU and while there are sheep farms run on an industrial scale, many if not most of the country’s herds are small (under 50 head), reflecting the traditional but fast disappearing network of mixed farms and small-holdings that goes by the term ‘subsistence’ farm. I hate that name because it implies a shameful lack of financial probity, as though providing home-grown food for your family without making money out of it were the lowest form of activity known to man. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been studying Romanian shepherding history and practices for the past eight years, with the aim of turning my findings into a book.
But that’s another rant. Let’s stick to this one for now. Until the shepherds demo in Bucharest when parliament suspended it until April this year, there was a law that limited the numbers of dogs they could use to protect their flocks. In practice that meant two, three or four per thousand head of sheep, depending on whether they are working on the plains, in the foothills or the high mountains (the further they are from populated areas the more dogs they’re allowed). Hunters (who have a huge lobby in Romania) had permission to shoot sheepdogs if they thought there were too many with one flock, because of a belief that sheepdogs kill or frighten away their prey…
…The shepherds’ protest did get somewhere. A new law allowing them to keep more dogs with their sheep and possibly extending their winter grazing rights is due to come into force in April 2016.
The system of shepherding in Romania, then, is highly specific to the mountains there; dogs that can protect the flocks from bears and wolves are used, along with a nomadic system that ensures no part of the mountains are overgrazed. The shepherds here have created a special relationship between sheep and land that is ancient, and that has survived and outlasted the troubling annexations and shifting political borders of Romania.
Shepherds seem to have a special status within Romanian history and culture; as Caroline writes for the BBC here, “when Romanians were agitating for independence in the 19th Century, Transylvanian shepherds were seen as the rugged pioneers of the nationalist movement.” And indeed it was a shepherd nicknamed Badea Cârțan who smuggled and distributed some 200,000 Romanian-language books into Transylvania from Romania, when Transylvania was still under Hungarian rule, inside Austria-Hungary, using the old transhumant pathways through the Făgăraş Mountains.
An iconic symbol of the shepherd in Romania is the amazing shaggy sheepskin they wear (a cape is either a sarică or bituşcă, while a cojoc (pl. cojoace) is a sheepskin coat with sleeves) to stay warm and protected in the harsh mountain weather:
Romanian shepherds still look archaic. They wear a long sheepskin cloak called a cojoc or sarică. With the shaggy fleece on the outside, it’s also their bed, so when shepherds call the cloak their house, they aren’t joking. When they sleep at all, it’s outside, in all weathers.
Many of these elements of Romanian shepherding are celebrated in wonderful folk music videos on Youtube; this is the only one I could find which is subtitled, but there are plenty of similar examples which celebrate the life and work of shepherds. You can see the sheep, the cheese and the mountains here, as well as the traditional shepherding cloak. The words are all about moving to the spring pastures with the sheep at the end of winter.
But what about the wool?
Wool was once so important to the National dress of Romania that, in 1882, the Queen posed for this photograph wearing a Fotă – “a richly-ornamented wrap-around skirt made out of a rectangular piece of woolen fabric worn at the waist” and spinning wool on a drop-spindle with a distaff.
Yet according to the report mentioned at the start of this post the price and value of wool are falling.
From 1950 to 1989 wool production played an important role in sheep-raising in Romania. Wool prices were supported by the Romanian state, being three to four times higher than the world market. Since 1989, wool prices decreased to the world market level and the income of all sheep owners has decreased dramatically. The removal of producer and consumer subsidies, privatisation of state enterprises, price liberalisation and reform of the financial sector had important implications for the structure of sheep farming and hence raw wool production in Romania. The privatisation programs have meant that many of the large state farms have been broken up into smaller land holdings. The large cooperative farms have been broken up into numerous small scale farms averaging only 1.6 hectares.
The decrease of wool prices had the effect of reducing the number of sheep in Romania. Most affected were former state farms (reduction of four times of sheep number) (Drăgănescu, 1998). Private sheep breeders could better face this situation, because their extensive production is cheaper and their production was more diversified with dairy and meat products, and continues to operate with low income. In 1992 to 1993 greasy wool production in Eastern Europe was 80 000 tonnes, of which 34 % was produced in Romania (Barett et al., 1993). Per person consumption of wool in Romania was 0.5 kg in the years 1987 to 1990 (Barrett et al., 1993). Today, wool production is not particularly important, and due to lower prices, the wool price received fails to cover expenses related to labor to achieve sheep herding.
However, in extraordinarily happy news, a new enterprise – Moeke yarns – is seeking to revive the native wool industry and to find an audience for wool from Romanian sheep.
On the “our story” page of the website the company’s founder, Iona, writes:
I was born in 1978 in Romania in a city called Oradea. That was still during the communist dictatorship. My brother is 3 years younger than me. During those times our parents had to work 6 days a week and the childcare facilities were not great, so our grandparents from my mother’s side took care of us. They lived in a small village surrounded by woods. We grow up in this wonderful place, with the purest air, the cleanest waters and the best food in the world.
Our grandparents were very special persons – loving, caring and hardworking. Especially our grandmother was a very important figure for both me and my brother – she was the glue that kept the family together. She was also very gifted with all things handmade. Not that she had a lot of choice – those times the shops did not have much to offer.
But life moved on: the revolution in 1989 brought the dawn of the communist era, my grandparents passed away, I grew up and followed my dream of becoming a sociologist and my brother started his own little business in Oradea. Maybe because I live now so far away from Romania and my life is so busy, I started to appreciate more and more those times when I was a child – the free and careless life following the natural rhythm of things. I took crocheting and knitting as hobbies as a way to reconnect to that part of my life and to keep alive the memory of my grandmother.
But then, last year, something happened. I went to visit my parents who now live in my grandparents’ house and looking through the things left from my grandmother I found two big bags with yarn. I remember that yarn: was hand-spun by my grandmother 16 years ago because she wanted to weave some bed spreads for us. But then she ran out of time due to a vicious illness…
The moment when I found that yarn was an inspiration to me. I realized that there is a potential there that is lost… Romania has quite a number of traditional sheep breeds and a long tradition in wool processing. But nowadays, due to bad economic circumstances, shepherds cannot sell their wool anymore so they burn it. Such a waste…
My decision to do something about it was immediate. I told my brother about my plan and he was immediately in. We would make yarns from Romanian wool, produced with traditional methods and no harmful chemicals, spun them in a traditional fiber mill and dye them with plants.
And here we are, a year after my holiday in Romania. It was an absolutely amazing adventure this year, but we managed to do what we aimed for: our first minimally processed traditional Romanian yarns are ready! I hope that you will enjoy them just like we enjoy our small contribution to the preservation of the traditional heritage of Romania!
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the history of sheep and wool in Romania, but we hope that Iona’s work will help to maintain the special regionalised farming methods that have developed here.
Remus Tiplea’s extraordinary photos of traditional Romanian shepherds
Walking with Shepherds by Paul White
Romanian Mountains photo album by Cinty Ionescu
The Ballad of the Romanian Shepherd – BBC magazine
Plugging Pastoralism and The Cloakmaker from the excellent Carpathian Sheepwalk blog
Carpathian Sheepwalk blog archives – 2011 – 2016
The Romanian Tsigai sheep breed, their potential and the challenges for research
Highly recommended blog post about selecting Romanian sheep for Moeke Yarn
As ever, please tell us if any of our information is factually wrong, or if you have any further information to add on this subject; we would love to hear about other wool projects in Romania.