This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
Two years ago, as a joke, a friend asked me to join the 50,000-member Group for Real Shepherds on Facebook. On it, people post photos of their sheep, lambs and dogs. All of the pictures are delightful – but the group is about much more than that. You get to find out how to make cheese and learn other fun facts, such as: sheep need to have their legs washed before milking.
The group’s administrator is Sorin Radu Suciu, a 25-year-old shepherd from Bihor County, in the north-west of Romania. He graduated from high school, before training as an armed security agent. He bought his first lamb at 12, with money he made Christmas carolling. Little by little, he put together enough to gather his own herd, and also inherited some sheep from his father.
I talked to him about life as a shepherd.
VICE: A lot of young people have a hard time finding their calling. How did you know you wanted to be a shepherd?
Sorin Radu Suciu: I was born with a special affection for sheep. I was in primary school when I first made some sheep out of Play-Doh. The teacher was impressed and called for the other teachers to check them out. They gave me a prize. Sheep are special animals. My parents and siblings have repeatedly asked me to sell them, get an education, become a man with a capital M… but I will never be as fulfilled as I am when I'm with my sheep. They help me relax.
Photo: Sorin Radu Suciu.
What does a regular day at the pastures look like for you?
At 4AM or 5AM I start my day. I spend two to three hours sitting on a stool and milking. I feed the dogs, pack some food in my rucksack and head off with the sheep. I take them where the grass is thick and the water is clear, so they’ll make good milk. By the evening, I'll have milked them two more times.
I clean their legs and remove the thistles in their wool, which I shear once a year. While I do this, I listen to music for as long as my phone battery lasts. I like Last Night I Thought of Selling All My Sheep by Doinel Handorean.
At night, I sleep in my makeshift wooden cabin or in my hut by the sheep stable. A wolf or bear will drop by sometimes, and then the dogs start barking, so I don’t get too much rest. If I have some spare time, I take care of my pigeons and pheasants. I’m a novice pigeon fancier.
What role does technology play in the life of a shepherd?
Google Maps is the most important app for a shepherd, but some of us have high-tech farms, with automatic milking machines. Most shepherds also hang out online. It helps them socialise and keep in touch with their families while they’re out in the mountains all alone. But some shepherds are completely glued to their phones and they don’t take care of their sheep properly.
I’m the admin of the Group for Real Shepherds on Facebook. A friend in Braşov [a town in central Romania] suggested we created a space to discuss issues related to animals, including bureaucracy. I'm always surprised by how the important shepherds, who are so well-respected throughout Romania, remain modest and patiently share their knowledge with others.
What difficulties do you face in your life as a shepherd?
It’s not easy to watch sheep every day. It’s not like watching TV or lounging in the sun. It’s a very tough job, especially with the rain, thunder, lightning, wind, hail, freezing cold, snow or unbearable heat. If you don’t love it, you won’t last long.
Last winter, my hands and feet were so frostbitten that my phone and staff [a walking stick] kept falling out of my hands. I rubbed them with homemade brandy or rubbing alcohol to be able to milk the sheep. At times, I was soaked to the bone. Other times, I’d huddle up among the sheep as the storm raged on. In those moments, I’d say to myself, "I either die with them, or live with them." I never feel alone when I’m with the sheep.
Up in the mountains, you shouldn’t be afraid of wild beasts, because they usually attack sheep, not people. I’ve lost a lot of them this year. I even grabbed one from a wolf’s mouth with my own hands, and then I ran after the wolf. It turned towards me and looked hungry. It was three metres away from me – I had goosebumps. But I yelled at it. The dogs came and we chased it off.
Is transhumance – the practice of moving livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures – still a thing?
From the 1st of May to the 1st of November, I keep the sheep in the mountains, on the communal pasture and on other private rental properties. Transhumance is no longer practised because some laws prohibit this type of shepherding. We can’t travel on the roads with our sheep, and private landowners no longer allow animals to cross their properties.
Most of today’s laws are made by people sitting in offices, who only see animals on TV. The laws aren't in our interest. For instance, you can only get state subsidies if your sheep was born from a certified ram [male]. The problem is that only hotshots with connections have got papers for their rams, and now small shepherds are forced to buy rams from them, even though their animals are not as strong.
A shepherd in his sheepskin coat. Photo: Mircea Topoleanu
How much money do you make selling sheep products?
There’s nearly no market for wool these days. Those who buy it pay between 15 and 20 euro cents per kilo. One sheep yields about three to five kilos of wool – I don’t know what kind of life you’re supposed to live on this kind of money. So I burn it, donate some of it to women who knit or neighbours who use it to insulate their homes. The rest of it is food for moths, left in bags up in the stable attic.
I sell a kilo of cheese for €3 to €4, while you pay the same amount for just 200 grams of it in the shops. I sell live sheep for 60 euro cents per kilo, while a whole carved sheep at the store can cost as much as €8.40 a kilo. For the big producers, our work is a joke.
Do Romanian shepherds still wear those cool sheepskin coats?
Back when we had transhumance, shepherds used to live in their sheepskin coats. Today, many of them keep it just for show. It’s super warm in the winter, it’s well insulated against the bad weather and it doesn’t require any particular maintenance. But they're hard to come by – they're made out of several ram skins, which need to be processed and sewn. They weigh about 10 to 15 kilos each, but can get to 40 or 50 kilos when they get soaked by the rain.
How do you make cheese traditionally?
The process differs from one area to the next. In Bihor, you take the lamb’s stomach while it’s still being nursed, you wash it with vinegar and lemon water and leave it alone for a few days. That's how you get the perfect rennet [the clotting agent used to curdle cheese]. To make cheese, I warm up the milk I get from my sheep and add a mug of rennet to it. Within 40 minutes, I get a sort of solid yoghurt, which needs to be cooked until dry, then stirred, then left to cook again. Finally, I collect the curdled cheese, wrap it up in gauze and leave it out to dry and strain.
SORIN AND TWO OF HIS DOGS: BUTUFAN and VOICA.
What’s a shepherd’s love life like?
It’s fine if you have a wife and you live with her, but for singles it’s harder. I’ve found a few dates on social networks, and in the summertime, when I’m mostly at home, I can get around because I’m in the real world and I can use a car. Female shepherds are also a thing, and, to my surprise, I keep seeing more and more of them making a name for themselves on the Group for Real Shepherds. I have the utmost respect for them. One day, I hope I’ll meet one.