ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Sheep to Sea-Change.
Despite living in a city environment surrounded by open rolling downs dispersed with small farms, tidy acres of cultivated olive groves and pastures stretching towards patches of dark forests spreading like spilt ink towards its summits, I have to admit to a lazy indolence in the matter of exploration. It was not always so. As a boy I took great pleasure in exploring natures emptiness in the folds of Salisbury Plain crossed by those lofty ‘drove roads’ that had once been the highways of ancient people and their sheep. Seemingly I was not alone. “The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain”, was reputed to be one David Saunders, of whom the very religious Hannah More considered a Christian Arcadian. In any case, I’m not sure the reference was a compliment as my school’s Latin master used to refer to us as “Arcadian Blockheads” or, if feeling more prosaic, simply “Ignavi et Inbecilli”, which is something as derogatory in Latin as it is in English.
Yet now, in the even more ancient social environment of Italy, the civilized cities and towns seem to have held a far richer fascination for me than I care to admit. But, in fact, I have to confess, this diversion is a little remiss, as a nation is not only made up of bricks and mortar, for the modern highways that link these social hubs must pass through regions that in reality are the true foundations of all societies. For lest we forget, in the beginning, all men were farmers.
So, if we step down from this lofty eyrie it soon becomes apparent that the olive groves and vineyards are often huddled close to the perimeter of town or village and the rolling downs and scantily populated places are only reached by leaving the twisty lanes of tarmac and venturing down lengthy dusty tracks. In the circumstances, it seems strange to call them “populated places”! But so they are, and one sunny afternoon, even as Christmas trundles closer, I discovered that “we have erred, and strayed from thy way like lost sheep.” Well, not quite. We had found our way to a kind invitation from a farming family to look at sheep!
It has always struck me that a large percentage of these isolated farm houses are substantial dwellings, a fact reflected in families often consisting of three generations sharing the same habitat. In this manner an expanding family meant they were ‘built on’ giving the house a more interesting configuration and character – they were rarely just a dwelling place. (A wonderfully descriptive book on this theme is Alessandro Falassi’s “Folklore by the Fireside.”) All the same it comes as something of a surprise to find, that in the sweeping landscape before you, what appears to be some distant cottages nestling in the folds of hills and valleys, house our hosts familial relatives. The landscape, it turns out, can be very inclusive.
The one we visited was no exception, an island surrounded by stables and barns with rolling hills amongst which they once mined alabaster; lanes with banks and hedgerows strewn with nepitella (a wild culinary herb), lavender, rosemary and at this time of year, the daisy like marguerite. In the distance that vast blanket of dark forest bound by an undergrowth of Mediterranean macchia stretched up to the sky. For that moment, what lay beyond might have been the unknown!
This, historically, was a sheep farm of 150 acres and now supports merely a handful of what were once hundreds grazing in the surrounding rolling pastures. Somewhat perceptibly, given the present European turbulence, its acres have been transferred to the planting of grain. It is not really surprising given one other inconvenience - associated restrictions. In Italy, every sheep must be registered by the farmer at the cost of one Euro! Each animal is then stamped with this official number, which is kept on a computer bank by the same local health authorities, L’USL. When a sheep is sold, for example, this registration must be presented along with an official document from the authority’s veterinary Doctor. The flock is then controlled annually. Any transit movements also must be certified, and may be checked by the police. L’USL also have to be notified again at death. Consequently, it appears that sheep certainly have identity cards! This heavy control is fairly universal in Europe given the chance of the sheep grazing on infested pastures from nature’s darker side. For example, pasture can be a home for Flukes and Protozoa, a particular problem given that sheep do not respond well to medical treatments. Apparently, they do though, respond well to good care, but it seems no other animal deteriorates so rapidly from neglect. This is regrettable, as flocks of sheep tend to create an image of a calm, civilised, well organised world, one content with itself. Man was never so close to delusion! Even farming has become a cause of discontent caught up in the dubious sophism of the “Green Agenda”. It is very divisive in the UK, but though Italy has fallen into line with the misguided EU trajectory on climate change, sheep farming remains something of a conundrum as the harvesting of wool is apparently not sustainable due to its effect on the environment, while grazing sheep improve the fertility of the soil and are thus beneficial. Hopefully, Italy will look the other way and ignore the awkward dualism.
Not that this Tuscan farm was employed in the shearing business, concentrating instead on the production of milk – a burdensome 04-30a.m. start in the morning which assured the collection of a fresh product. Sheep’s milk is too rich for drinking, having twice the fat content of cows, and is utilised mainly in the production of cheese. (However, because of its high calcium content it is recommended for those suffering from osteoporosis.) Not just any cheese, of course, but Pecorino, a cheese that by law can only be made in Sardinia, and the regions of Lazio and Grosseto. (Pecorino Romano merely indicates a cheese made to the recipe favoured by the Roman Legions.) The production of milk ceases around July and August while the gestation period takes place; therefore, the peak marketing periods for lamb is between Christmas and Easter. In England sheep are quaintly characterised: Ram or Tup is the sire; Ewe the dam; Lamb the new born sheep until it is weaned when it is called a Hogget; the Tup lamb being a Tup Hogget. If the Tup is castrated it is called a Wether-Hogget. You couldn’t make it up!
Left behind by the farms change of direction are a pair of ‘platinum blonde’ Maremmano hounds. The hefty males of this breed, weighing in at over 50kg., are bred for the purpose of protecting the flock, being aggressive animals on their own territory. One, on the farm, has been pensioned from his classical role of guarding the flock of timid domestic ruminants. Given their bushy thick coats they are as well adapted as the sheep to withstand winters blizzard like weather. Very attached to their owners, they have a propensity to eat you out of house and home. Only one of the pair still remaining is a working dog, pining if there were no sheep to look after. So thoughtfully, and with kindly attention, a small number have been retained to keep him in good spirits! The other, not a year old, has all the makings of a wonderful family dog.
Historically, here in Tuscany, these dogs are associated with the Maremma, once an area of malarial marshes on the alluvial plain from Livorno to Grosseto, famous for its sheep farming. The handful of sheep left on this farm are “Sarda,” appropriately a Sardinian breed much favoured for the quality of its milk.
Substantial flocks of sheep were normally policed by four of these large and ferocious Maremmano hounds, an essential task as ‘woods’ in Tuscany has once again come to mean ‘wolves!’ Urbanites are generally unaware of the destructive nature of such predatory creatures and will protest at their elimination, but anyone who has witnessed the senseless carnage caused by such animals will be highly critical of those who advocate their protection under present EU regulations. A reckless and illogical project to reintroduce such a predator into areas which they have abandoned is misjudged and morally insensible given the animals propensity to form packs capable of negating the protection of the hounds. Speaking of which, apparently, the wolves have cross bred with domestic dogs – perhaps, if the UK is anything to go by - social animals unwanted after the Covid epidemic! The result is yet another case of the European Union’s moral insensibility!
But you can be assured, from our short visit, when “push comes to shove” the farmers will once again come into their own.