Once there were 10,000, but now just a few hundred are left – what we learned from the shepherd who preserves the knowledge of his ancestors

·2022.05.27

In one of the most successful scientific films of the year, László Sáfián showed us how he grazes his flock, answering questions put to him by Zsolt Molnár, research group leader at the Centre for Ecological Research, who also directed the film. The extraordinary relationship between the shepherd from the Nyírség region of Eastern Hungary and the scientist began with the naming of a few blades of grass, and now they are collaborating on preserving herding knowledge that can be traced back seven generations, and publishing an article in a prestigious scientific journal, as co-authors in an international team. The researcher collected the herder’s knowledge in the same way that the famous Hungarian composer Béla Bartók collected folk songs at the start of last century. But in a country of a million sheep, how did this knowledge end up in jeopardy? How did herders become important players in nature conservation? How did the researcher succeed in “taming” the herder, whose father used to set his dog on strangers, and who would only treat sick animals in secret, so nobody would find out how he did it? This is the story of the shepherd and the scientist.

The ecologist had already decided at the age of three that he would like to work with ants. With the support of his father, a forestry engineer, and his mother, who took an interest in ethnography, it was now a straight path for Zsolt Molnár to become a botanist and ethno-ecologist. His family background also played a part in his realisation that something was not quite right when he noticed that research among herders was conducted mostly by ethnographers and folk musicians, who tend to be unfamiliar with different grasses and sedges, and who therefore rarely ask herders how many types of plants they can identify, where a lot of people can only see one or two kinds of grass. And yet the ancestral knowledge of herders extends to more than folk songs and dances, and indeed the most important science they have is connected to grazing, to their knowledge of plants and livestock. At the start of the 2000s, at an international conference, Zsolt Molnár recognised that the ecological knowledge held by herders should be collected in the same systematic way that Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály once collected folk songs. Europe was lagging behind in this respect; while a few researchers took an interest in traditional ecological knowledge, they preferred to put their questions to herders in more exotic places, in former colonies. Why them? After all, in Hungary we have reached the eleventh hour, and there are perhaps just a few hundred herders remaining who still preserve this knowledge, passed down through generations. They are not simply “security experts” looking after sheep and cattle – they possess a deep understanding of nature. They may have quit formal education after primary school, but they know as much about the plants growing on the pasture as any professor of botany, only from a very different perspective. 

For László Sáfián, also called Laci, his childhood ended when he announced he wanted to be a herder, like his father and grandfather, and his father before him, stretching back seven generations. His ancestors had always been so bound up with shepherding that they had rarely so much as looked at a cow. His father always proudly told him that the only metal he ever needed attached to a piece of wood was the hook on the end of his shepherd’s crook. He never wielded a hoe or a scythe. 

Once, however, it seemed that their two-hundred-year history of shepherding was coming to an end. Even though every other member of the family, as far back as they could remember, had been a shepherd, Laci’s older brother wanted to learn a trade. And that is what he did. “He likes sheep”, his father joked, “but only in the stew pot!” This was his way of dealing with the shock of his son’s decision. Those times were already hard enough, for whereas Laci’s grandfather and great-grandfather had been senior shepherds, right at the top of the herding hierarchy, his father had been forced into becoming just another shepherd employed by the collective farm. His sheep were nationalised as part of the communist project, and then he was told to look after his own flock. This made him a broken man. 

Laci’s brother brought some new, rather disturbing information into the family – jobs existed where you only worked eight hours a day, for good money, with no need to get up at 4 in the morning and work with the animals till 11 at night, even on Saturdays and Sundays, with no rest day. 

Then, when little Laci told his family that, nonetheless, he wanted to be a shepherd, his father simultaneously tried to talk him out of it while teaching him to be the best a shepherd could be. Step by step, he inducted him into a secretive, closed world. One of the first lessons was, if he saw a farmworker on the land, carrying a hoe on his shoulder, he would hold his dog back, because he had respect for such people. But he didn’t like the men in trousers, because when they came near you, it only meant trouble. 

Laci’s ancestors were healing shepherds, and if a sheep suffered an injury, his father could perform complex interventions to save them. He taught his son all he knew, but not if there were strangers around. This was their own private knowledge, which they shared with nobody.  

When these two men met, the scientist – unwittingly – asked the shepherd to break his cardinal rule. He knew that László Sáfián was not just a “sheep watcher”, sipping cheap wine carried in a stripy plastic bag, and knowing not much more about the livestock than an electric fence. What he did not yet know, however, was just how much ecological knowledge Laci possessed, or how to elicit this knowledge from him. 

"The scientist asked the shepherd to break his cardinal rule." László Sáfián and Zsolt Molnár in cold weather in the field (photo by Boldizsár Jenei)

At a shepherds’ meeting in the Hortobágy, over a table covered in piles of grasses, flowers and branches, the scientist asked the shepherd which of these plants he knew and what he called them. Zsolt Molnár didn’t say too much afterwards, only asked if he could join László Sáfián one day while he was grazing his flock. He seems like a simple man, thought the shepherd, so why not? He’s probably a botanist or something, they can spend the day roaming the pasture somehow. Two years later, after roaming the pasture again and again, Zsolt Molnár was still asking questions, and then a few months passed, and he came back again, asking even more questions. Just like his father had done when he was still a child. What the shepherd understood from all this was that the botanist was listening to him, was really interested in what he had to say; he wanted to know what he knew, and he had no need to pretend to be more than he actually was.

Two years after their first meeting, during a phone call, it turned out by chance that this tall man who knew the names of all the grasses was in fact a doctor. What on earth was a doctor doing in their neck of the woods?

„My father taught me that I should respect doctors, whether they’re doctors of people or doctors of animals, but in Zsolt’s case, we came to respect him first of all because of his humanity,” the shepherd recalls. “What’s more, he’s not a doctor of people or animals, but a kind of doctor of herders.”

Zsolt Molnár progressed with care. At first he simply collected and systematised Laci’s ecological knowledge, rather like Bartók must have done with the songs of the folk singers. Later he began to talk about his own knowledge, and he asked the shepherd his opinion. Laci, who is both a modest, respectful man and an aristocrat of his own profession, told him what he knew. He also pointed out what he didn’t know. He became the scientist’s research partner. Today, they publish articles together in the most prestigious English-language ecology journals; the three-hour film they produced this year has become one of the most watched Hungarian scientific videos; Laci draws the crowds as a guest at the summer festival held at the Centre for Ecological Research; and when Zsolt defended his DSc dissertation at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, naturally Laci was there among the guests, dressed in his traditional shepherd’s overcoat, together with four other shepherds, and two farmers from the Csángó community in the Gyimes (Ghimeş) region of Transylvania. Of course he could only attend after going out around daybreak to graze his sheep, because they need grazing every day, no matter what important ceremonies are taking place at the Academy.

Shepherds at the DSc defence (photo by Erzsébet Fráter)

But we are getting ahead of ourselves in unravelling the secret of these two men. It’s dawn and the air is nice and fresh, the lights are soft and yellow. We’ll be spending the whole day in the company of the shepherd and the scientist. We can sense that for László Sáfián we are just one of many journalists satisfying their curiosity about shepherds. There are so few of them left that reporters are heading for the Great Plain in droves, hoping to still spot one or two. For Zsolt, meanwhile, our visit represents an opportunity to spread the word about the importance of traditional ecological knowledge, and to demonstrate that, although a herder’s knowledge hasn’t been considered “science” since the Enlightenment, the world is in such big trouble these days that it’s about time we changed our attitudes.  

The day begins with driving the sheep for several kilometres out into the pasture, because while the numbers of shepherds and sheep are dwindling, the grasslands are running out even faster. In this part of Hungary, for example, the pastures are being replaced with plantations of black locust trees. Long gone are the large expanses of continuous pasture, so we have to walk a long way, even though it’s not the walking that fattens the sheep.

We watch as several hundred animals follow each other’s footsteps through the semi-darkness of the forest. Then we follow them. The big iron bells worn by the two bellwethers resound deeply, while the smaller iron and the copper bells on another eight or nine sheep tinkle at a higher pitch. The shepherd knows which particular sheep prefer to walk on the left or the right side of the flock, which ones walk at the front, and which behind. Without looking at the flock, he can tell from the sound of the bells which way the sheep are turning, and if they’re behaving well. But today they’re not behaving well, because we’re strangers here, and for all our best intentions, they try to keep away from us, and they’re afraid of the sound of the camera. The shepherd grumbles a little, but we want to take home the spectacle of this living formation, as hundreds of well-fed sheep seem to merge together beneath the orange glow of the rising sun. 

"We want to take home the spectacle..." (photo by Szabolcs Vörös / Válasz Online)

For hours on end we just watch the shepherd from a distance, and for now even the scientist keeps away from him. László Sáfián, wearing rubber boots and his grey working coat, leans on his shepherd’s crook. Only his ornate shepherd’s hat gives us hope that we didn’t get up at 4 in the morning for a few pretty photos and a silent agriculturalist. As the lights grow brighter, the sandy soil beneath our feet gets warmer. We are not in the Hortobágy, but in Erdőspuszta, near Debrecen, in what used to be the traditional wintering grounds of the Hortobágy livestock. For two hundred years, the flocks spent their summers on the salty-marshy plain, and then for winter they were driven across the stubble fields to the oak forests and clearings. Things are different today, and László Sáfián grazes his sheep all year round on this little patch of land near Hajdúsámson, geographically part of the sandy Nyírség region. A large part of the grass has dried out in the blazing sunshine. It rained heavily in other places, but here not a drop. The shepherd stands motionless for a half hour or so, leaning on his crook, then he moves a little to one side, and the flock follows him. He stands there for another half hour, and then shifts again. It’s hard to imagine a more boring way to start a report. And then something happens. László Sáfián takes off his coat and ties it to his bag. He now stands there in his white shirt and black waistcoat, its buttons twinkling in the sunlight. 

“Are they silver?” I point to the metal buttons. 

“The clothes we wear on special occasions, when we go to church or to markets and festivals, they’ve got real silver buttons on them, these are just fake silver.”

He can see that I don’t understand – real silver buttons worn by a shepherd? 

“My grandfather and great-grandfather were chief shepherds, and their clothes were made by bespoke tailors in Berettyóújfalu. They wore silver buttons. They were called out to heal sick animals, they were highly respected. But my father never talked about this.” 

With his curling moustache and white shirt, dressed in the clothes of his ancestors, he stands beside his sheep. 

“My grandfather always wore a white shirt when he was grazing his sheep,” he explains. The pasture can get very dusty, so it doesn’t seem too practical to work on the plain in a white ironed short. Why white?

“I don’t know. There were all kinds of things you couldn’t ask him.”

His hat is decorated with silver buttons. His clothes are not a costume, but belong to his job. I proffer a box of apricots, and I can tell from his eyes he’s amused that out here in the country I’m trying to butter him up with some fruit bought from the city market. “My father planted the trees,” I tell him, so he takes some. We’ve moved a few millimetres closer to each other.

"With his curling moustache and white shirt, dressed in the clothes of his ancestors, he stands beside his sheep" (photo by Szabolcs Vörös / Válasz Online)

Silver buttons once adorned the clothes worn by noblemen, and from there they migrated to shepherds’ attire. The ones belonging to our shepherd here re breast-shaped and patterned with petals. They served an important function, as out on the plain, even from a distance, one could tell that this was a person of some importance. Shepherds have always been somewhat separate from the rest of society, with a strong hierarchy of their own. The chief shepherds always stood at the top of this hierarchy, followed by the older shepherds and then the young shepherd boys. Then, during decades of socialism, this system was torn up, but the shepherds still commanded respect even when they were part of the collective farms. The capitalist changes 30 years ago further eroded the remnants of shepherding culture, with untrained, underpaid “sheep watchers” performing much of the work, known for carrying around cheap flagons of wine in stripy plastic bags. There are many today who think that electric fences can do the job just as well, and in some cases they are not wrong. László Sáfián sees the way out of this by working for nobody else and looking after his own flock.

So what does our shepherd know? I ask him to mark out an area with his shepherd’s crook and for us to compare our vocabulary – I make my living from words, while he’s the taciturn herder. There is a cunning glint in his eye. Zsolt interjects that in Hungarian fairytales, the shepherd is always smart and sophisticated. In German tales, the hero is the one who rescues Little Red Riding Hood or escapes alive from the deep, dark forest, whereas

in Hungarian folk tales, the shepherd boy is the resourceful figure who outsmarts all the princes and marries the princess.

The trick that shepherds have played for centuries is to act dumb in front of strangers from the city, but the professor is in no doubt that the shepherd is going to win. 

“It’s ninety percent couch grass”, the shepherd points with his crook at the patch of ground. “But here we’ve got folyófű (‘creeping grass’), csörgőkóró (‘rattling dry-stem’), vadkapor (‘wild dill’) – though it’s been chewed down –, orsósarok (‘spindle corner’), also called kannamosó (‘jug washer’), cickafarok (‘pussycat’s tail’). That’s it!” He signals that he can’t find any other plants. Laci, like most herders, uses not the scientific terms, but traditional folk names, all of which are highly descriptive, each with their own story to tell.

Zsolt Molnár watches us and nods.

“Laci knows more than a hundred plants that are important to the sheep, and he sees the field from a unique perspective, through the mouths of the livestock. He knows what grows when, what the sheep like, whether it’s nutritious or not.” 

I try to interpret what he’s saying: “If the sheep like it, it must be nutritious, no?”

“Not if it passes straight through them,” observes the shepherd, and there is no arguing with that. According to the ecologist, the shepherd even knows which plants are particularly useful before the sheep start breeding, which ones are medicinal, and which ones to lead the sheep to if they have a problem. I listen in amazement. 

“The sheep and the shepherd learn from each other,” explains the researcher. “Often even the sheep knows which herbs or which food plants it needs.”

"Here we’ve got ‘creeping grass, rattling dry-stem, wild dill’– though it’s been chewed down –, ‘spindle corner’, also called ‘jug washer, pussycat’s tail’" (photo by Szabolcs Vörös / Válasz Online)

We’ve been following the shepherd for hours, and he has hardly spoken a word. Maybe the flock decides which way to go, all by itself? And he simply follows them?

“The flock aren’t afraid of me, but of the dogs, and I direct them with the dogs.” 

He’s helped by a large white dog and a little black one. The little one is called Divat (Fashion), after its father, who a few weeks ago sensed that the end was nigh and went off to die. The shepherd found his trusty dog at an old resting place, beneath a bush. Right now he’s training this lively, hyperactive little puppy. We ask him to get the dog to bark once or twice. His smile seems to ask, “Is that really interesting for you?” But he gives the command and Divat does as he’s told, no problem at all. It’s an important skill, and the flock can be gently guided simply by the sound of the dog’s voice.

“Within the falka” – this is the word he uses to refer to the flock – “I can’t direct every sheep. Only the two bellwethers. The others all follow them.”

I ask him if he can show me how he turns the flock around, so that they go in the opposite direction, without the dogs barking and without him raising his stick, only by commanding the two bellwethers. 

“Dezső! Rezső!” he repeatedly addresses the two bellwethers, emphasising the first syllable, and dragging out the second vowel in the local dialect, almost singing their names. The two bellwethers are sheared somewhat differently from the rest of the sheep, with the wool left longer on their fronts and at the ends of their long tails; they look like lions with rich manes and tufted tails. Slowly but surely the two bellwethers turn around, and the flock goes with them, now heading east. 

“They’re walking into the sun, which the sheep don’t like to do,” explains the shepherd, because this is one of the most difficult tasks. The two bellwethers can tell from the tone of his voice what he wants them to do: to carry on in front, or to stay behind and keep the flock calm and quiet.  

Later on I get the chance to see that Laci can perform some complex and impressive tasks at shepherding competitions. 

As we amble slowly after the flock, Zsolt tells me that Laci not only knows the plants and what state the sheep prefer them to be in, but also how much they should be allowed to chew off and when, so that the plants can regrow and regenerate. That is, he understands their ecology. 

“After a while,” the shepherd says, “I wanted to find out why the sheep were so keen on eating particular plants, such as the one we call ‘sweet grass’. So I tasted it, and it’s absolutely bitter.”

Thanks to years of learning from his father, Laci knows which plants they have to be careful with, and which plants can be eaten when. When springtime is dry, everything is covered in a plant with yellow flowers, called csengőfű (‘bell grass’), csörgőkóró (‘rattling dry-stem’) or törökátok (‘Turkish curse’)(Rhinanthus). The latter name bears the weight of history: the Ottoman Empire occupied this region for 150 years in the 16th-17th centuries, causing widespread suffering.

“Its seeds are poisonous,” the shepherd tells me. “Not so harmful to sheep, but when they’re semi-ripe, the seeds can knock out a horse or intoxicate a sheep. It grows in watery places, and when it sprouts, we have to graze it to keep it down or pull it out. Later we have to leave it alone, we mustn’t go near it. We also don’t like it because it kills off the grass.” 

“It’s semi-parasitic,” interjects the ecologist. 

“When it’s dry in spring you can really notice it, because the grass around it dries out. While the sheep are grazing on it, I bring them there, to kill it off. It’s the worst curse we have,” the shepherd concludes. 

“In the Gyimes region they have a legend about András Báthory, a 16th-century Prince of Transylvania; when he was on the run, he was betrayed by the people of a village, and for seven years, the only plant that grew in the fields around the village was ‘bell grass’ or ‘Turkish curse’.” 

I can see on Laci’s face that this would be like a plague of locusts. 

This is where the knowledge of the scientist and the shepherd comes together. The basic task of herders the world over is to keep their livestock healthy and to produce meat even in places where crops don’t grow. On a lush, broad pasture, maybe grazing is no big deal, but here on the sand! 

Laci with his dogs (photos by Szabolcs Vörös / Válasz Online)

The two men met time and again, now teaching each other. Zsolt Molnár not only travelled to Hajdúsámson to collect herders’ knowledge, but also to the Gyimes region, to Syrmia (in Serbia), to Mongolia and Iran, and after a while he began to ask Laci if he did certain things the same way as Mongolian herders. And what he observed Laci doing, he asked of the Iranians. For example, the Hungarian shepherd tries to improve his pasture: if he comes across some legumes, which are really valuable forage plants, then when the seeds are ripe, he grazes the sheep on them, and then the next day he drives the sheep to take their midday rest in a place where he hopes the seeds will fall on fertile ground. 

I understand none of this. 

“I make them crap it out there,” explains Laci. 
“Restorative grazing”, Zsolt paraphrases.

In the 1980s, ecologists realised that the species diversity of grasslands could be enhanced with targeted grazing. Laci’s ancestors have known and practised this since time immemorial. But the Mongolians never do this. In their view, it is not the job of people to improve the grass, only not to overuse it so as to give it a chance to recover.

Laci also takes care when the situation is reversed. When he takes his flock onto a stubble field (a freshly harvested area), where there are plenty of weeds, then afterwards he avoids taking the sheep back onto the pasture. Whatever the sheep eat on the stubble field, he makes sure it stays there.

“That’s our job, to look after the grass, so it doesn’t get full of weeds or bushes, only we never did this because of nature conservation, but for the sheep’s mouths. Until I met Zsolt, I never considered the fact that, at the end of the day, we have the same aim: to have as much biodiversity as possible, to have as many different plants as possible on the grass. 

Of course, what he means by grass has nothing to do with the lawn in someone’s garden. Herders receive financial support from the state not to use artificial fertilisers, or not to drive their livestock to certain areas when the rare Hungarian pasque flower is in bloom, or perhaps to graze sedges, because that is beneficial to particular animals, for example, the Hungarian meadow viper in the area near the village of Bugac. A good herder does not need to be warned to graze carefully on the dry, hillocky sections, where the rainwater quickly drains away so the vegetation only regenerates once a year. Or on the hollows, which are more watery and therefore can regenerate up to three times a year, although they are prone to sedge, which the sheep don’t like. Herders notice new, invasive species, which are spreading rapidly due to climate change, and so they drive their livestock onto them. They thus exert power over life and death. 

“Lots of people say how boring it is here. Here? No two days are ever the same – I can watch how the plants grow all around me, the lambs and the sheep. I watch this regeneration all the time, it’s my passion.”

As a child he learned slowly. If, for example, he let his sheep all run towards the well, then the next day his father would send him out to listen how many of them had developed a cough. If he drove his sheep too quickly, so that the bells rang like mad, his father would ask him, “Something wrong with your dog?” When his sheep ran too fast, by 9 in the morning they would no longer graze in the heat, whereas his father’s flock was still chewing the fescue at half past 10. And they got fat more quickly too.

“Lots of people say how boring it is here. Here? No two days are ever the same...” (photo by Szabolcs Vörös / Válasz Online)

Laci runs his farm jointly with his brother, Lajos. Together they teach their children – Laci’s daughter Ibike, Lajos’s six-year-old son, and his daughter, nicknamed Tücsi – who may one day grow up to be the eighth generation in the shepherding family. 

“Little Lalika can run through the shed without a single one of the five hundred sheep getting up. He knows how close to their heads he can run without making them scared,” he tells me proudly. 

Laci was also taught everything by his father in the same way, little by little. And over the years, he has shared these secrets with the scientist. Zsolt Molnár listened, made notes, and was thrilled by what he heard. We can now see that the shepherd is not just a kind of guard, only there to make sure the animals don’t wander off, but in fact a manager of the landscape, a preserver of ecological ideas. But what could have been of such importance to make the researcher so excited? 

“A lot of thoughts complied with what was written down a hundred or two years ago by a scientist of the time from speaking to a herder of the time. Other sentences were what I had heard from Mongolian herders, word by word in the same form. Space, time, herder, livestock – ancient knowledge. Of course it’s continuously adapted to the world. As [nineteenth-century Hungarian statesman István] Széchenyi said, the old good is joined with the new good.”

The other source of excitement was the healing activities carried out by herders. For thousands of years there were no vets on the plain, so the herder had to take care of the livestock. In the past, a sheep could easily die by accidentally consuming the eggs of a worm (sturdy, Taenia multiceps), exposing itself to mortal danger.

“It heads for the brain,” Laci explains. “My father showed me how to hold the sheep, then he cut a hole in the animal’s skull and took out the larvae. But he only ever showed it to us, never to a stranger. 

“Bronze age man could do this; archaeologists have found human bones healed with trepanation. I found it extremely exciting to hear that this knowledge was used on animals just a generation ago, having been passed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years.” 

“I had to make the sheep sit, like when it’s being sheared. My grandfather taught my father that where the developed larva move, the bone in that part is a bit softer. You can also see which side to look, because there’s liquid dripping from the sheep’s nose. He would fold back the wool and first cut a triangle in the sheep’s skin, and then in its skull. If he did it properly, the bone wouldn’t break. He lifted out the triangle with a stick, took out the larvae, and then replaced the bone.” 

A skull operation done with a penknife out on the plain? 

The shepherd nods.

“That’s how my father did it.”

When Laci was a child, his father also taught him how to do foot paring. The ecologist explains that in this kind of treatment, the dead parts of the hoof have to be cut away. The shepherd even demonstrates how his father used to do this out in the field.

“You have to sit the sheep down so that it’s comfortable and won’t kick so much. We never started until we were holding it correctly.” 

That is, in the perfect position, so that the sheep would surrender to the shepherd’s will. 

“My father insisted on me practising when I was still young and not yet strong enough to substitute the right movement. Later it’s harder to learn, because you can use your strength to hold the animal down, even if you don’t find the right position.” 

“We never started until we were holding it correctly” (photo by Szabolcs Vörös / Válasz Online)

“It was a different world. We couldn’t reach a vet out on the plain, and the wool was also valuable. Nowadays we’re happy if we cover the cost of getting the shearing done. Ewes’ milk also used to fetch a good price, but since we joined the EU, you’re not allowed to milk by hand any more, so the milk business has ended now. Not so long ago a mutton stew was an essential part of big family celebrations, but young people don’t eat it now, and it’s falling out of fashion even in the Great Plain. So the adult sheep have virtually no value; it’s mostly the lambs, and 99 percent of them are sold to the Italians. The market’s quite vibrant right now, the price of lamb has gone up. Lots of farmers are now looking for good shepherds.

In the meantime the majority of large farms use electric fences – called “electric herders” in Hungarian – to keep their flocks in one place, and there is a reasonable explanation for this: a herder is paid 200,000 forints (a little over 550 euros) per month, whereas a decent electric fencing system can be purchased for 400,000 forints. Experiments with such systems were carried out in the 1970s and 1980s on sandy soils too, but the pasture ended up being destroyed, because whatever plants were not trampled on by the sheep or scorched by their urine were eaten up by the livestock, down to the last blade of grass.

The difference between a flesh-and-blood shepherd and an electric one may not become apparent in the first year, but only in the third or fourth year. There are some places where electric fences work well, of course: in the UK, where the grass is sown and fertilised, where it rains every day, and where they keep sheep whose herd instinct has been bred out of them. Such sheep don’t move in a flock, but spread out nice and evenly across the fenced-in pasture.

More sheep survive when a good shepherd is in charge of them, who can spot problems early on and manage the sheep while they graze. In flocks with nobody looking over them, less than a hundred lambs are born per hundred ewes, but in the flocks owned by Laci and his family there are plenty of twin births, so the performance of the sheep is way above 100%. The Italians will only buy fat lambs with thick backs.

"In North-Western Europe they keep sheep whose herd instinct has been bred out of them." A sheep on Helgoland, Germany (photo by Szabolcs Vörös / Válasz Online)

The shepherd has mellowed by now, as he can sense that we’re not only interested in him as a person, but also in the disappearing world of which he is a living relic. When he talks openly about the secrets of the herders, he is not betraying them, but actually protecting and preserving them. When he squats down on a sheep and demonstrates the sequence of movements in foot paring, we look at him as though he were a special type of endangered species. Incidentally, we’re all suffering so much in the sun that we can be sure of one thing: none of us is going to come back here tomorrow and take his place or take away his living. Come wind or rain, the shepherd will always be right here, and that must be even harder than trudging for hours across the sweltering plain without the slightest shade. 

Once there were ten or twenty thousand herders in Hungary with a deep understanding of herding practices, but now just a few hundred remain. In 1960 there were 2.5 million sheep in Hungary, but now that number is just over 1 million. There are still a few thousand herders living in the Balkans, but throughout the world there are 300 million. We need them badly, because on forty percent of the Earth’s land surface, the biomass produced each year can only be utilised through the flesh of grazing animals. In Zsolt Molnár’s view, it’s important for the future of the Earth and of humanity that we consume a lot less meat, but it makes a big difference whether that meat comes from intensive farming or from extensive, herded grazing. If everyone were vegetarian, then Mongolia, Kenya and lots of other places would be completely uninhabitable. What’s more, the landscape isn’t destroyed by animals, the Great Plain has had the same kind of wooded steppe appearance since the time of the mammoths and aurochs; it is just that since then, it’s been preserved this way by being used by herders, cows and sheep.

Herders fulfil a mission, but their world is gradually disappearing, and these two men are working to change that.

One reason is that while wine is advertised, lamb is not. If every family ate lamb on just one special occasion each year, then shepherds would be better respected, without hurting anybody at all. Half a million hectares of grasslands in Hungary can only be utilised as pastures for grazing, and it’s important for the conservation of nature as well that these grasslands are grazed. The Great Plain has always been a cultural landscape, and it would come to no harm if it were entrusted to people who can see the pasture through the mouths of their livestock. 

It’s time for the sheep to be watered. In this pasture of theirs, they no longer draw water using a shadoof, but Laci’s brother Lajos, also a shepherd, handles the pump. The sheep take their midday rest in the nearby forest, chewing the cud, and they come for water in groups, slurping noisily. We sit down in the shade of a hawthorn, and it’s so hot that even this feels like ice-cold air conditioning. The shepherd’s entire family arrive, and Laci’s wife, Ibolya, brings out pasta with potatoes, which she serves in little cauldrons. We’ve been on our feet for eight hours, so everything tastes heavenly. The whole family gathers around Laci, and as they eat with us beneath the hawthorn bush, it’s obvious how much respect they have for him.

Zsolt and Laci conduct research (photo by Szabolcs Vörös / Válasz Online)

Afterwards Zsolt and Laci write their latest article; they want to summarise the common visions about pasture grasses and livestock grazing shared by the herders of the world. They are collaborating with Mongolian, Iranian, Kenyan and Polish researchers and herders. Zsolt translates from English certain apparently universal statements. One example is that herders gain most of their knowledge about plants through the behaviour and grazing of their livestock. Laci doesn’t know if it’s the same everywhere in the world, as this subject isn’t dealt with in nature films, but he, like other Hungarian herders, thinks this way. Zsolt reminds us about our little competition at dawn, and he points at a plant in the distance. “What can I see?” he asks me. “What do you see?” he asks Laci. “A purple flower”, we both say. The shepherd – like the city dweller – can’t name the purple loosestrife (Lythrum), because it’s not an important species, but he knows that the sheep don’t eat it, but nor is it poisonous or dangerous to them. So, the statement seems to be true. 

Then comes the next sentence: one of the aims of herders all over the world is to utilise as many of the plant species on the pasture as possible. Laci nods, that’s true. He adds that some pasture always has to be set aside for winter, but if not everything is consumed, thanks to the weather, then the dried grass must not be allowed to stay there till spring. 

“I make them get rid of the excess with their feet, I make them tramp it down.”

He demonstrates with his hands how fragile the dry grass is. He makes the sheep tramp it down because the old grass has to disappear in order for the new grass to grow in spring, so that his sheep have plenty to eat the next year.

They nod, make notes, and cogitate. The scientist and the herder, the two masters of how to regenerate the pasture.

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Cover photo: Szabolcs Vörös / Válasz Online

Kategória: In English