The slopes and high pastures of the beautiful mountains that encircle the Sulmona Valley are not just a haven for wildlife and a place for us to explore, experience and enjoy but they are also, for many, a place of work.
In the summer months the Abruzzo highlands are grassy and vast – used predominantly to graze hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats but also large numbers of cattle and horses. Droving, shepherding and raising livestock is an ancient way of life in our mountainous region; an industry that continues today much as it has done for thousands of years. Indeed, it was the basis of survival for those who first came into this land to create its settlements and the life and culture we see today.
So, when you go into the hills you will, probably sooner rather than later, encounter flocks, herds, shepherds, refuges, pens and… sheepdogs. Almost exclusively the big, creamy-coloured, thickly-coated, powerful-looking Abruzzo Pastore, also known as the Maremma.
The dogs have a specific job to do and have been doing it for as long as people have taken flocks to the high ground. Indeed, without them this ages-old way of animal rearing would not be possible. They are the sentries, the eyes and ears of the shepherd, the guards. Against wolves – as much a threat today as they have ever been.
Guarding is what they have been bred to do and they are very good at it. They don’t herd or round-up; they don’t trot obediently alongside the shepherd instantly obeying every command – they lie around, half-asleep, scratching and yawning, keeping cool in whatever shade they can find. Or at least it looks like they are half-asleep…
The moment you are anywhere near the flock they will know. It’s as uncanny as it is impressive. And they will warn you to keep away by barking and running towards you – definitely a dissuasion to stay away rather than an attack. Let’s be honest, though, it can be a bit scary, especially as there are often several involved. And they’re big and loud.
As this will inevitably happen to you if you are frequent walker in the mountains, it’s as well to be prepared. Here are my guidelines for managing the encounter:
- Know that livestock are only taken onto the mountains from, roughly, 1st May to the 15th October. But there are no definites and the weather in any particular year will affect these dates;
- Be aware at all times of the possibility of coming across a flock, particularly (but not necessarily) on pasture above the treeline and in the areas around shepherd’s huts and drinking fountains. If you know you might come across a flock you won’t be (as) surprised when you do and you might just spot them before they spot you – definitely good;
- Know that the dogs may have been left in sole charge of the flock. Do not expect there will be shepherds nearby who will call the dogs back. (And even if there are they probably won’t call the dogs back!);
- As soon as you are aware of the flock, look for a way of walking away from it or, at the least, walking around giving it as wide a berth as possible. Remember that the dogs want you to leave and become a non-threat. As soon as they see this is the case they will (eventually) desist;
- The dogs will run towards you but will rarely come closer than, say, 3 or 4 metres. There are ways for you to behave to help them keep their distance:
- Stay calm, do not panic (I know, easier said than done)
- Do not move erratically, quickly or in any ‘unpredictable’ way. No running
- Do not make any noise
- Do not move towards the dogs
- Lower your gaze and do not look at them in the eye
- Do not raise your arms / hands and don’t wave hiking poles
- Turn from them and walk slowly but surely away at an even pace;
- Keep doing all of the above until the dogs get bored with you. They will do but it might take the keener ones 200m or so before they wander off;
- If you have a dog of your own with you, keep it on its lead. It’s a good idea to leave your dog at home if you think you have a reasonable chance of a flock encounter on your walk.