• Julio Sa Rego

“Of Wolves and Shepherds”, echoes from Portuguese mountains


The lives of shepherds and wolves are interwoven in Portugal. They both used to populate the mountains of the North and symbolised the balanced dispute between men and nature. Where you had wolves, you had shepherds. But shepherds left the hills as they became victims of the authoritarian government ‘modernisation’ policy that grabbed their traditional pasture lands to plant forests instead. One after another, ‘unproductive’, and ‘backward’ common pasturelands were replaced by ‘scientific’, ‘modern’, ‘productive’, and ‘proud’ protected governmental forests. The landscape eventually changed, the climate evolved, and the new government policy transformed once fertile pasturelands into highly flammable grounds. Fires came, wolves departed. No more shepherds, no more wolves either.


The re-democratisation of Portugal in the 1970’s returned the lands to pastoralist communities. Flocks and shepherds re-occupied the hills and, progressively, the wildlife also returned – birds, rabbits, foxes, deer, and wolves. The latter benefited additionally from the active help of engaged environmentalists who proposed a smart and holistic approach: reintroduce both the wolf and indigenous sheepdogs to favour the protection of the flocks. Shepherds were awarded dogs to limit shepherd-wolf conflicts. The wolf population grew, packs enlarged. Consequently, attacks on flocks became more frequent. Packs of 6-7 wolves tend inevitably to outnumber one or two sheepdogs.


Shepherds do not blame the wolf. Isolated attacks to flocks are the price of nature and wolves also have their rights to existence. Instead, shepherds blame the government and its byzantine system of compensations. Each attack on flocks has to be duly reported and official investigations are opened to determine whether wolves are the culprits or not. Crime scenes must comprise the animal victim’s carcass and evidence of the wolf attack: footprints, faeces, bite marks, hair, and, why not, a witness. Unsurprisingly, investigations are inconclusive, and shepherds are generally not compensated for their economic losses. Once again, the complicated conservation policy is to the detriment of pastoralist communities.


Shepherds now advocate to be included in the environmental policy. Pastoralism and conservation are not antagonistic in a co-constructed landscape. Shepherds recognise the value of and their dependency on nature. Wildlife, vegetation, flocks, and shepherds all have their roles and functions attributed over millennia. The wolf occupies imaginations, it forces at once fear and respect. I was told a story of a goatherd who found two abandoned wolf cubs in the hills of Alvão. Mother wolf was gone or dead and the goatherd, in secret, cared for her cubs. He fed and looked after them until rumours of this unexpected story reached the forest guards. They coerced the goatherd to deliver the cubs to the care of the environmental authorities. After several intimations, the goatherd had no other choice than to comply with the official demands. The story is one of the multiple illustrations of ties between pastoralists and their environment in Portuguese mountains.


Shepherds are not enemies of wolves. On the contrary, shepherds hold many conservation ideas grounded in their pragmatic grassroot ecologies. Once we converse with them, we learn how to conciliate the economy of pastoralism and the conservation imperative for the wolves. The policy needs of the pastoral people may be in the form of lump sum compensation sums based on a mix of wolf-pastoral interactions and flock size or sanctuaries where wolves are fed with culled livestock. Shepherds make their living from nature; they are the first concerned with its preservation. What is missing is the governmental recognition of their unique environmental agency.


Sa Rego, J. (2021). Of Wolves and Shepherds – echoes from Portuguese mountains. Pastoral Times ed. IX, Índia. [Chronicle]