Bringing Heritage Sheep Back From the Brink of Extinction

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The Karakachanski Ovca, a rare breed of heritage sheep, has made a resurgence in the Balkans.
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"Slow Food Almanac" advocates the belief that people have been too far removed from the cooking and creation of their food, and that simple meals made with love and care are a more rewarding and sustaining experience.

Slow Food Almanac (Slow Food, 2013) argues that something valuable has been lost in this era of fast food and instant gratification. Humanity needs the pleasure meals made with love and attention, and from locally grown ingredients. A global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries around the world, Slow Food International promotes the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment. This excerpt focuses on efforts by Serbian herders to bring a breed of heritage sheep back from the verge of extinction.

Living on the Edge

“Traces of the Karakachanska Ovca, a sheep variety selected over the centuries by the Karakacani nomadic ethnic group, were lost for decades in Serbia, but a few years ago, during a visit to the Mount Cemernik area, in southern Serbia, some of the locals told me about two sisters, who were stubbornly continuing to breed ‘strange sheep’ with dark fleeces…” Sergej Ivanov, a veterinarian by profession and also a passionate, patient defender of endangered breeds and biodiversity, is describing the rediscovery of one of the many livestock breeds that he is currently struggling to safeguard. “The Karakachanska is not an isolated case. Often endangered breeds are saved by people on the edge of society, stubborn and full of respect for their animals, who are often considered by their community to have a few screws loose.”

Protecting At-Risk Breeds

With his flock of around 250 sheep, Ivanov is now working directly to reintroduce the Karakachanska breed. But his efforts are not limited to this animal, which is particularly suited to the climate of the Balkans. In the municipality of Dimitrovgrad, not far from the Bulgarian border, where he was born and grew up, Ivanov is fighting for the survival of a dozen breeds that would otherwise be destined for oblivion. He has enlisted the help of some of the local farmers, who are raising breeds with evocative, half-forgotten names, like the Busa cow, the Mangalica pig, the Brdski Konj horse, the Balkansko Magare donkey and the Pirtoska, Bardoka and Krivovirska sheep. The idea of working to safeguard endangered breeds took shape in 2002, and developed out of a project supported by what was then the Yugoslavian Federal Institute for Genetic Resources. The NGO Natura Balkanica, chaired by Ivanov, initially received 20 Mangalica pigs and four Brdski Konj horses. At the start, things were not easy. As well as technical and financial obstacles, they had to deal with considerable skepticism. “The old-school agronomists didn’t understand our efforts to preserve a precious and fragile biodiversity,” recalls Ivanov. “They told us: You’re mad, you’re working to reintroduce unproductive species that we’ve spent years of work getting rid of.” The skepticism was partly overcome by the institution, in 2003, of a Biological Diversity Fair, which is now held every year in Dimitrovgrad, and attracts thousands of visitors and the media. In fact, in 2012, the municipality of Dimitrovgrad passed a motion to make the municipal territory a biodiversity park.

In Search of Economic Sustainability

Over the years, the number of farms that raise rare breeds has increased. “We started with just one farmer, and now we have more than 15,” says Ivanov. For a few years, the Serbian Agriculture Ministry contributed to a special fund, which was discontinued in 2010. “It’s a shame that the funds were cut off, but at the same time it is encouraging to see that despite the lack of funding, the interest in farming these traditional breeds has not declined,” he says. The greatest success has been with a native cattle breed, the Busa, which has short horns and relatively small proportions and is very well suited to the region’s pastures. After almost completely disappearing a decade ago, there are now 400 animals in Serbia, most raised in the villages around Dimitrovgrad. The variety at most risk, on the other hand, is the Pirotska Ovca sheep breed. Despite enviable success, especially considering the limited resources available, many challenges still remain. “The most difficult concern is economic sustainability,” admits Dimitrov. “Most of the output from the endangered breeds, the milk and meat, is sold as a raw material and not as a finished product. This makes the farmers extremely weak on the market.” The future, according to Ivanov, lies in combining farming, food production and tourism services. “Increasing the financial yield for the farmers, the true heroes of this adventure, is the real winning card. Any defeat for those who farm the breeds would represent a terrible loss. For everyone.”

Interested in learning more about the slow food? Read Inside the Slow Food Movement.

Karakachan Sheep Presidium in Bulgaria

In early 2000, the Semperviva association opened a farm in the Pirin mountains to save the Karakachan breed. To preserve the heritage sheep, the farm’s producers spent over 10 years searching for purebred animals, travelling to the most remote mountain villages to find communities of shepherds who had kept their flocks separate from others.

Now the aim is to revive Karakachan sheep farming, making it economically sustainable by promoting the excellent white cheese and yogurt made with the sheep’s milk. These days, most shops and restaurants in Bulgaria sell industrial cheese and other dairy products, while artisanal foods are neither appreciated nor valued. Working on communication and taste education will therefore be essential.

The Slow Food Foundation, together with Semperviva, is also helping the producers to open a new dairy that will allow them to make products in accordance with Bulgarian food-safety laws, and a new aging facility to preserve the products’ quality even during the hot summer months.

Reprinted with permission from Slow Food Almanac edited by Silvia Ceriani and published by Slow Food International, 2013.  Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries around the world who are linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment.