If you ask a Romanian shepherd, the government is out of touch with their traditional culture. And as a result, they say their livelihoods are under attack by hunters and conservationists who are trying to take away their dogs and restrict use of land for herding.

Take away their dogs? You read that right. 

A sheep stands on a field outside of  Bucharest, Romania.


Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

Back in December, as many as 4,000 shepherds and sheep herders wearing shaggy sheepskins, and carrying their wooden staffs, surrounded the Parliament building in Bucharest. They tried to climb over the walls.

“They were confronted by riot police with truncheons and tear gas. So that it was quite a surprising scene,” says the BBC 's Lucy Ash. Her radio documentary Romania: The Shepherd’s Revolt aired on Radio 4’s Crossing Continents program.

“They’re very angry about an amendment to Romania’s hunting law, “explains Ash. “It has to be recognized that hunting is a huge pastime in Romania especially among the elite …. But there are people who do it from all walks of life.

"And there was an amendment to the hunting law that was going to limit the number of dogs the shepherds would be allowed to keep. One dog on the plains, two dogs on hilly terrains, three dogs up in the mountains.”

That policy angered many shepherds who rely on dogs to protect them from the predators in the hills and valleys of the Carpathian Mountains. Romania has the biggest population of bears in Europe, 6,500 brown bears, and they can be quite vicious when hungry, says Ash.

“What the dogs do is they give the shepherds peace of mind. Otherwise they’re continually on edge worrying that a wolf is going to come down and snack on one of their sheep or that they’re going to be attacked by a bear. So they didn't really like lawmakers or hunters who they see as just people who treat the countryside as a place to come and have fun rather than actually work. They didn't like them telling them how many dogs they could keep.”

Bogdan Cristel/Reuters (Romania)

On the other side of the controversy, Romania has an influential hunting lobby — around two thirds of MPs are hunters — and they accuse shepherds’ dogs of scaring off or sometimes even killing their quarry. They also claim overgrazing is damaging the natural habitat of the deer, the boar and other wild animals they hunt.

“The hunters on their side say these shepherds, some of them don't feed their dogs properly over the winter time, they attacked the animals that we want to shoot, some times that she attack our hunting dogs. One man who got out of a very fancy looking jeep was saying to me, ‘Do you realize that these pointers cost thousands of Euros to buy and to train it takes over a year and these horrible shepherds’ dogs attacked one and killed it?’

"So they were very much up in arms and they believe there are too many sheep in Romania. They say that because of subsidies from the European Union, shepherds and sheep herders have been encouraged to increase the number of their flock.  “So it's sort of like these two lobbies, the shepherds and the hunters are at loggerheads.”

At heart this is an argument about who or what the countryside is for, says Lucy Ash. “Is its main purpose an economic one? Is it primarily for leisure? Or should it be about the people who live there?"

While Romanians debate those questions, shepherds insist the new law is an attack on centuries of sheep rearing and their culture and traditions.

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI