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A Human Migration Story - Part II

After a week-long slog, our reporter, Tessa McGregor has completed this year's transhumance from the mountains around Kotel in Bulgaria to fresh new pastures in the lowlands.

Karakachan Sheep by Tessa McGregor

Bulgarian transhumance

This is the second part of Tessa's report from Bulgaria on the transhumance.

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Having gained my ‘sheep legs’ during this transhumance, it feels very odd to walk without ‘our’ flock; alternately cajoling and urging them up and down the mountains. The sound of their bells is still ringing in my head and the sights and smells of the Balkans are imprinted deep into my senses. I half expect to hear the reassuring bark of large dogs in the night letting me know that predators are on the move, but it’s over for this year. The sheep are settled in their winter pastures in the Strandzha area, in South East Bulgaria, near the Turkish border. They will spend the winter here until next Spring, when they make the return journey back up to the Central Balkan Mountains.

I have witnessed their role in maintaining grasslands habitats, so necessary for a plethora of plants and wildlife, including the rare and globally threatened Imperial Eagle and the European ground squirrel, both found in Strandzha. It’s fascinating to see how moving the sheep prevents overgrazing and how diverse their tastes are. They have been relishing acorns in the woodland and a variety of grasses and leaves along the way. We have seen that instead of degrading land, they can enrich it.

Unimproved grasslands are precious and increasingly rare. They, like forests, play an important role in climate regulation, and Bulgaria is blessed with both in abundance. The mix of forest and grassland is breathtaking in scale, beauty and diversity. There are probably more bears in Bulgaria than in any other European country.

In my short time here, I have heard jackals and seen wolf tracks. Wild boar are common and can be very big. I have seen more signs of deer trophies in hunters’ houses than on our journey, but the photographs of dead animals show that they also can reach very large sizes. Food is plentiful and I am not surprised to learn that Bulgaria is the country with the highest biodiversity in Europe

Participating in this transhumance has been completely absorbing on all fronts; the enthusiasm which our passage has generated among local people along the way and the musical and culinary celebrations that marked the start and end of the journey have been unforgettable. Rebel Farmer and The Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna’s vision and drive, with the help Dobre our shepherd and the rest of our team has been inspiring. The Karakachan sheep, dogs and horses have demonstrated their unique breed qualities.

This transhumance has shown me that in this case, the return to traditional farming practices looks more enlightened than old fashioned – showing a way in which farming can be equally beneficial to the environment, wildlife and people.

Further Reading:

Last Report: Tessa joins the Transhumance
More on Tranhumance in Bulgaria
Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna

User comments

Evelyn Wilson
I listened with interest to the programme on Radio 4 this morning, as I happened to sit next to Paul (Ecology Tourist), who you interviewed, on the plane to London last night. It warmed my heart to see your 'sheep on the hills' videos as I am a great lover of Bulgarian rural life. Thank you for bringing this aspect of Bulgarian life to wider attention. LOCATION: 50.833302,-0.150000 DATE: Tue, 21 Oct 2008 17:29:27 UTC

Richard Garratt
Being a member of the LPO (RSPB equivalent), each year we collect fledgling Montagu's Harriers that make their nests in wheat fields. Because the wheat is harvested earlier these years, we have to move the chicks to a safe place -- namely my garden. Sadly the parent birds never find them so I have the task/privilege to raise them. I am honored to watch them grow (their wingspan increases by 1 cm a day!) and to see their first flights. Then in early September they leave me and somehow find their way to Senegal for the winter. I was lucky to have 5 this year, although last year's total numbers were much greater. I heard on your programme that whales migrate for the first time with the help of their parents. This is certainly not the case with "my" harriers -- the adult birds leave long before the young are ready to make the journey. And apparently they (or at least the males) are faithful to the area of their first flight and so come back each year to the same region. So presumably it is just instinct that helps them navigate these great distances. LOCATION: 47.1580,-0.3493 DATE: Tue, 21 Oct 2008 12:09:44 GMT

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