Shepherds, Abruzzo Mountain Life and the Transhumanza Tradition

Two shepherds and participant

From pre-Roman times until the late 1900’s all aspects of  life in an Abruzzo hilltown were shaped by sheep-rearing and the wool industry. Because the pastures for large flocks were outside of the towns, villages became tightly knit houses and fortresses clinging to steep hillsides. Those who profited from the sheep, built beautiful homes in the villages and gave generously to the local churches. The majority of men lived away from the village for most of the year. The transhumanza was traditionally a way to feed the sheep during the long, harsh Abruzzo winters. Snow covered the ground all winter. So in September, the shepherds took the sheep south all the way to warmer Puglia where the grass flourished in the winter, but dried out in the summer.  They returned along the same legislated trails or tratturi in May to take advantage of the lush pastures in the mountains. There were four major tratturi in the region. The shepherds from Anversa, Scanno, and Sulmona would take one of the inland routes. The shepherds from Calascio would head toward the  Adriatic coast walking almost 250 kilometers on their way to Foggia, Puglia.

When the shepherds returned in May, they took the sheep to the higher pastures in the mountains of the region. The shepherds were given two days off of work every fifteen days during the summer. The shepherds were slaves. They may have owned five sheep of their own, but worked for the wealthy families. The wave of emmigration to the United States in the late 1800’s gave them a chance for freedom and broke the economic system of the wealthy families. The transhumanza was in jeopardy at the time as new laws in Puglia encouraged crop growing.  Grazing land began to disappear as social and economic changes dismantled the system of sheep-rearing and craft production that sustained the region for many centuries. There are few to no Italian shepherds anymore. The shepherds on our transhumanza were Romanian.

The shepherds on our trek used a combination of whistles, sticks, dogs, and a mule to guide the sheep. The sheep seemed to follow the mule. The shepherds whistled signals to the mule, dogs, or sheep. I am not sure which. If a sheep started to stray or became lazy, the shepherd beat the ground near the slowpoke with his bastone. I would hear, “vai, vai, vai” and chants almost like football cheers, “Hey, hey”. Once in a while I understood a word like “pigra”, lazy. One older sheep gave up and a shepherd tied it to a horse for part of the trip. The white Abruzzo sheep dogs were gentle and circled around the edges of the herd when they were stopped to graze. They mingled easily with people in between working stints. Once in a while all the dogs would take off in one direction barking and running into the woods. Wolves are present in the Abruzzo parks and have taken a few of Nunzio’s sheep in recent weeks. I never found out, however, what the dogs were after on one of these escapades. They may have just been chasing something tasty to eat. There were about 20 dogs all told, some the white mastiffs and some black and white.

Sheep dogs hard at work!!

Sheep dogs

Shepherd's Chapel

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