In the book, ‘Un Savoir-faire de Bergers’, an interview with older French shepherds about fences illustrates a generational and landscape divide. The use of fencing to keep in sheep instead of taking them to pasture, is what older shepherds say is a loss of ‘savoir faire’ (expertise).
‘Fifteen or twenty years ago, the parents of breeders also kept the flocks, so they knew their pastures. But now, young breeders do not guard anymore. They put the flock in a fence area, even in the mountains. They can no longer explain their mountain.’ – Olivier Bel, shepherd rights activist, educator and shepherd.
Guarding is seen as a skill and a profession of protectionist relations between sheep and the landscape which is being lost with fencing. In one generation, the use of fencing means the breeder no longer has to guard his/her sheep. The role of the shepherd is also at stake. There used to be smaller herds of an average of 100 heads, managed by one shepherd. Breeders can now maximize sheep numbers, 5-600 heads minimum per herd. This is partly due to the use of fencing which keeps sheep in one place, and under control by one farmer. Fencing replaces 4-5 shepherds that would be needed for such a large flock. This lowers costs, but at what cost?
Many breeders use fencing because of the return of the wolf, and rightfully so. However, the use of fencing was happening before the wolf, and is a symbol of a landscape of relations changing rapidly under large scale systems of efficiency… but at the cost of learning from the mountains.
And are we becoming managers of fences instead of sheep?