The Italian Region Abruzzo and Its Shepherding Tradition

Abruzzo is an Italian region, geographically it is in central Italy, but historically it belongs to the northernmost region of southern Italy. The landscape is very wide and consists mainly of olive tree plantations, some arable fields and sometimes large areas of fallow land. 

Migration Into Cities

Here too, the migration into cities is very evident. There are only a few young people left who want to work as farmers, livestock breeders or shepherds. Understandably so. It is a lot of hard work, the pay is low and you can probably forget about holidays. 

Nevertheless, there are a few who still devote themselves to the profession, or are doing so again, and it is very interesting to hear about their lives and their way of working. Abruzzo has a very long and partly still active tradition of shepherding. Especially flocks of sheep can be seen in the vast landscape if you spend time there during the summer months. But there are also herds of cattle, donkeys and horses, sometimes alone, sometimes with shepherds. It is striking that almost all herds have guard dogs with them. In this respect, the Abruzzo cultural landscape differs from the one in the Alpine region. The approach to herd protection is completely different.

Abruzzo and Wildlife

Here, wild animals (including bears and wolves) are protected. This can be seen, among other things, on the road signs that have been erected time and again, calling for caution not to run over the large predators that cross the road.

Wolves especially are simply seen differently here in central and southern Italy. Here, the wolf was never extinct, so the livestock farmers and their animals have had to protect themselves from it somehow for thousands of years. To this day, people do not know any different and the wolf belongs to their land like dogs belong to their herds. When asked what he thinks of the wolf, a sheep farmer with 1,300 ewes answers calmly and with a mischievous smile on his face: “The wolf is beautiful.”

Conversations with Shepherds

In the Majella National Park there are a variety of shepherds; one thing they all have in common is that they are happy to meet foreigners and talk to them, glad for any social contact: “It is hard work”, they say. Sometimes friends come by to visit them, but most of the time they spend alone with the animals. Many are quite advanced in age and thus very experienced; their faces tanned by the sun, their skin dark. The backpacks they carry are from yesteryear and look like it. Leaning on their crooks, they watch their herds and move with them from one pasture to the next. They probably do not cover many kilometres a day. That, too, is something unimaginable in the Alpine region. That’s not working!, is what people would think there.

But appearances are deceptive. The shepherds who are out in the pasture with the animals every day do a lot to protect their herds. They are not only there to take care of animals in case of possible illnesses or injuries and keep their flocks compactly together with the help of the herding dogs, but also deter the wolf and other predators with their livestock guarding dogs. 

In the evening, the sheep flocks come into the night pen, the dogs get their food and finally the shepherds’ work is done for the day. While they rest, however, their guarding dogs continue to work, all night long. If the night pen is approached, lo and behold, the dogs strike. But after a few minutes of barking, stillness returns.

One shepherd with his flock of 500 sheep and nine guarding dogs is happy to share his experiences. When asked how often the wolf passes by here, he just shakes his head: “The wolf doesn’t pass by here often, but always; he’s just watching us talk about him.” At this he laughs. A few days ago, his lead male got into a fight with the wolf, which is why he is now limping a bit. But in return he has been able to successfully protect his lamb and the ewe. Of course, there is no 100% protection against predators, not even with dogs. But the risk of damage is reduced to such an extent that working with dogs is definitely worthwhile. The shepherd says that he loses about three to four sheep per season to the wolf. In contrast, 20-25 die per year from disease and natural death. So the wolf is by far the lesser evil. 

The wolf doesn’t come by often, it comes by all the time.
Shepherd in Campo Imperatore
LIFEstockProtect Majella NP 2020-32440.dng
Herds of sheep grazing in Majella National Park with the wolf just around the corner

One thought on “The Italian Region Abruzzo and Its Shepherding Tradition

  • Till now I only knew about Abruzzo for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Pecorino Sheep (and cheese). Didn’t know about herds and wolves. Thanks for sharing.

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