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[simage=260, price 512, anorexia n, shop center,]
Mario on horseback with his sheep following

After an overnight train ride down the Adriatic Coast, during which Vanessa and I were nearly robbed by two thugs, we have arrived at Colavecchio Borraro Farm in the mountains of Molise. Forty-five minutes west through the mountains by car is Naples, and a half-hour’s drive east is the Adriatic Coast. The farm is owned by Mario and his wife, Carmella. They have a flock of 260 milk sheep, horses, chickens, geese, and numerous dogs.

We ate a light lunch as soon as we arrived, and immediately afterwards Mario asked us if we had enough energy following our overnight trip to go to the fields with the sheep. We have a mere two weeks on the farm, and Mario normally only accepts help from people who can stay at least one month because of the amount there is to learn about shepherding. Since we are on a crash-course, we agreed to go despite being exhausted.

Mario walked with us to a nearby field where a movable electric fence had been set up with the sheep inside. A border collie named Jackie tagged along.

Jackie, the border collie

As we approached, six large, white dogs that had been camouflaged in the herd charged at Vanessa and me, barking viciously but held back by the electric fence. Mario had to introduce us to each of the dogs, taking our hands in his and placing them in front of the dogs’ noses. “Friends,” he told the dogs, and instantly they accepted our presence. Without the introduction by Mario these dogs would have attacked us. They are a breed called maremma sheepdogs and they are the sheep’s guardians. They grow up with the sheep, live and move with them, and will protect them at all costs.

One of the maremma sheepdogs. Don’t let its cuddly looks fool you: it is a fierce protector of the sheep

After introducing us to the maremma sheepdogs, Mario turned off the battery that was powering the fence, and opened one end. He called to the sheep, “TE TE, POCHE POCHE.” The sheep lined up and filed out of the enclosure behind Mario. We walked with Mario as he called to the sheep. Jackie, the border collie, stayed in front with us the whole time. The maremma sheepdogs walked along with the sheep. We followed a wide, grassy strip that Mario referred to as a tratturo, eventually crossing a road and entering a wide field. Mario handed us a ten-page printout that had clear instructions on the sheep, the border collie, the maremma sheepdogs, and the horses. He told us to read it repeatedly and to memorize all of the information in it. He passed us a cellphone so that he could call us and we could call him. He pointed to the confines of the field, telling us not to let the sheep cross over. Then he left us with 260 sheep, six overly-protective sheepdogs, one border collie, and no idea of what to do with any of them.

We began reading. The instructions were dense with commands for each type of animal, and specifications of all sorts. As we were reading, a car approached on a nearby road. The maremma sheepdogs exploded towards it, barking ferociously. We had already read the section on the maremma sheepdogs in the instruction booklet and tried to apply the appropriate commands. “ALLE PECORE!” (TO THE SHEEP!) we screamed at the dogs as they chased alongside the car. “ALLE PECORE!!” They completely ignored us. The car finally out-drove them and they reluctantly returned to us. “Great,” I told Vanessa, “this is exactly what I want. Six killer dogs that won’t listen to us.”

We returned to our reading, moving the sheep from time to time to uneaten sections of grass. Suddenly the maremma sheepdogs tore across the field towards the road, barking. With no car in sight, I scanned the road. A cyclist came into view. I felt a surge of nerves: the dogs could maul him. “ALLE PECORE,” I screamed. The dogs continued towards the cyclist. I sprinted after them, screaming at the top of my lungs, calling each of their names as best I could remember from the printout. “NEBBIA, ALLE PERCORE! ORSO, ALLE PECORE! OLMO, ALLE PECORE!” I was most worried about Olmo, the eldest male, who was described as the most dangerous in the printout. He was out in front and about to intercept the cyclist. When the cyclist realized the situation he stopped and got off his bike, frozen in terror. A less knowledgeable person may have tried to ride past at top speed, which would have been a catastrophic mistake. When the biker stopped, the dogs stopped too, holding their ground and barking, warning him not to come any closer. “NOOOO!” I screamed at the dogs, “ALLE PECORE!” I finally caught up with them.

The biker yelled at me, “Control your dogs!” If only he knew: they weren’t mine and I couldn’t control them. “I’m sorry, I’m trying,” I hollered back. I continued to issue the commands at the dogs in a firm voice. They didn’t obey. The biker slowly started walking his bike, giving a wide berth to the dogs. At any second one of the dogs could launch and attack him. He looked mortified. I was too. Eventually he made it past, and when he was a safe distance he mounted his bike and raced off. Olmo tried to chase him without success. I yelled again and again, “ALLE PECORE. OLMO, ALLE PECORE!” but he didn’t stop until the biker was gone. I scolded the dogs for not listening to me as we walked back to the sheep. My voice was horse from yelling, and I felt uncertain about the situation we were in. I hoped desperately no other cars or cyclists would pass by.

Shaken from what had happened, Vanessa and I both tried to turn our attention back to the printout, studying the commands. We moved the sheep to the farthest point in the field from the road, hoping the dogs would feel less threatened by passersby that way. We experimented with commands to the border collie, with little success.

After four hours had passed from when he left us, Mario returned. I told him about the dogs and that I didn’t feel like I had any control over them, that it made me nervous when strangers came close. He nodded, and pulled a hand gun from his pocket. “That is what this is for,” he said. “I didn’t think you would need it today. When you shoot it into the air, the dogs are frightened and return to the sheep. Starting tomorrow you will always have it with you.”

I am beginning to understand why he prefers volunteers to stay at least one month: we are being asked to take on a lot of responsibility, and to learn a complex job rapidly.

One Response to “Shepherds”

  1. on 22 Mar 2007 at 6:18 pmDayna

    Wow. That sounds scary. Do you have any video to put up of you commanding the dogs so we can see the dogs in action (doing what they are supposed to do?)

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