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.