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SHEPHERDS WATCHING THEIR FLOCKS BY NIGHT WILL SOON BE GONE FROM SLOVAK HILLSIDES

Traditional shepherding faces extinction

HERDS of sheep can be easily spotted these days grazing on the hillsides of northern Slovak regions. The shepherds usually drive them to pasture on Žofia day (May 15), after the cold days are over, and watch them until the name of Michal appears in the calendar (September 29), depending on the weather.
"Sheep breeding today, however, is completely different from how it used to be," says Matúš Pitelka, who had been shepherding for 40 years before his recent retirement.
"As shepherds, we used to spend the whole summer taking care of sheep while living in a cabin on the hillsides. Today, the sheep are largely kept in sheds behind a village. And the bare hillsides were we used to watch the flocks are being forested."


MASTER shepherd Pitelka.
photo: Zuzana Habšudová

HERDS of sheep can be easily spotted these days grazing on the hillsides of northern Slovak regions. The shepherds usually drive them to pasture on Žofia day (May 15), after the cold days are over, and watch them until the name of Michal appears in the calendar (September 29), depending on the weather.

"Sheep breeding today, however, is completely different from how it used to be," says Matúš Pitelka, who had been shepherding for 40 years before his recent retirement.

"As shepherds, we used to spend the whole summer taking care of sheep while living in a cabin on the hillsides. Today, the sheep are largely kept in sheds behind a village. And the bare hillsides were we used to watch the flocks are being forested."

After communism sheep breeding experienced a decline. As civilisation has marched on in Slovakia the shepherds have come down from the hills and have settled in villages. This is mainly due to the adaptation of mechanised milking. The classical function of a shepherd - spending the summer taking care of sheep with his helpers and making sheep products in a shed - is dying away.

"Master shepherds are very conservative. They stick to traditions too much. Despite the fact that work is easier with a machine, it is difficult to persuade a 50-year-old shepherd to use one, especially after he milks a sheep several times and it gets an infection," says Pitelka, who used to milk 120 sheep a day by hand.

He claims he could be persuaded to do it by machine, as he had already tried it, but he is rather against it as the technique is not perfected yet. "Even the farms that switched to machine milking are returning back to the traditional ways."


SHEPHERD's cabins are home to traditional cheese making.
photo: Zuzana Habšudová

Born in the town of Zázrivá in the northern Orava region, Pitelka followed in the footsteps of his father - himself a master shepherd. He, as well as his five brothers, had to help their father from childhood. Despite the fact that they swore that they never wanted to see sheep when they grew up, all the brothers became shepherds.

"I keep saying that if my father had been a minister, we would all be ministers," he jokes.

He grew up in the north, but was sent to shepherd in the west. He watched around 300 sheep for the Trenčianska Teplá Reasearch Institute and later the same number for Prucké farm near Bratislava, with two or three helpers.

According to the Association of Sheep and Goat Farmers, there are around 316,000 sheep in Slovakia. One of the most famous areas for breeding sheep is the Banská Bystrica district in central Slovakia, specifically the town of Brezno. Big sheep farms can be found in the Orava, Liptov, and Spiš regions.

In the past sheep products, like the fresh or smoked cheese of various types and the special drink called žinčica, were largely made in sheds in the mountains. Today production has moved to the farms near the villages, that only produce the raw, basic cheese. Then individual producers and dairy factories process it and make it into special products.

"There was so much work in the shed, that we didn't have time to get down to our village all summer long. Well, we did, but to a different village - to a pub," Pitelka says.


SHEEP and the shepherding tradition are a major part of Slovakia's cultural heritage that is slowly fading into history.
photo: Anton Frič

At 5:00 every morning they went to milk the sheep for the first time during the day. When they finished an hour later, they drove the sheep to the pasture and watched them until around noon, when they took a two-hour rest. Around 13:00 they went to milk the flock again and then watched it until 19:00. At that time they milked the sheep for the third and last time of the day, and started making the cheese.

"At the end of the day, we were happy to fall on our beds.

"It was a tough but beautiful life. And not dull at all. On Saturdays or Sundays, the farmers to whom the sheep belonged [the flock used to be collected from individual farmers who owned them, before the communists nationalised all property - ed. note] came to pick up the cheese. Mushroom pickers stopped to chat, as did the women who came to pick blueberries," Pitelka remembers.

The women obviously were the most sought after company for this clearly male group. For that reason, most of the jokes the shepherds told referred to longing for women. The most typical, though almost all perverted, were the ones about exchanging sheep for them.

One of Pitelka's favourites goes like this: "A vet goes to a shed in the mountain and sees a shepherd and a sheep coming from behind a cabin. The shepherd sighs and says to the sheep, 'If only you could also cook.'"

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