Shepherding In Crete


Yesterday I had the great honor in accompanying my friend, Nikos Manousakis, to his family’s village high up in the mountains of southern Crete.  I had met Niko through a friend, over Facebook of all places, after writing a post announcing that I was searching for a traditional Cretan shepherd to be the subject of one of my next articles. IMG_4449_FotorNiko has two uncles who fit such a profile and we made plans to visit them that Thursday. Niko was heading up to the village anyway, to check up on one of the sheep and to carry out a small procedure for animal had a cyst on its brain.  For those of you who may not have already guessed, Niko is a vet, and a very good one at that. So, early on Thursday morning, Niko picked me up outside my apartment and we started the thirty minute drive up into the mountains to his family’s’ village.   The drive itself was beautiful; the rocky mountain cliffs set amidst rolling hills, carpeted with little squares of neatly arranged fields and orchards, made it look as if the landscape were a huge quilt woven together by the hands of a giant. Long stretches of road snaked around the sides of the mountains like neatly placed ribbons of asphalt.  The small villages that passed by the car’s window looked like movie sets from the early 1900’s, complete with elderly men siping Greek coffee outside the kafeneion, a traditional coffee house, and elderly women walking with canes in one hand and bunches of wildflowers in the other. As we approached Niko’s village, called Ethia, I spotted a tiny church built high up on the mountain’s peak.  “That’s my family’s church,” Nikos explained,IMG_4474_Fotor “my great grandmother imagined it there long ago, and then my great grandfather built it.” Its white walls and red roof made it stand out from the grayish green landscape around it, making for a picturesque scene that one gets quite accustomed to in Greece, one that you never tire of. We passed more brightly painted churches as we made our way to the village, each belonging to other families in Ethia.  We arrived in the village at around 10:30 am, and met one of Niko’s uncles in the local kafeneion, where many of the local men gather to pass the time, gossiping and telling wild stories. While both of Niko’s uncles are shepherds by trade, only one of them, Dimitris Velegrakis, maintains a large goat and sheep farm full time. The other uncle, as well as being a sheep farmer, runs a taverna and is a skilled cheese maker. Dimitris sat on the far side of the cafe, drinking a freddo espresso and smoking a hand rolled cigarette.  His face and hands are weathered and tanned from many years of hard manual labor under the Cretan sun, yet behind his big bushy, salt and pepper beard, sparkling blue eyes shine with a IMG_4932_Fotorchildish humor that bring a youthful energy to his character, one that could be noticed even by the passing stranger. After a quick espresso we headed off to Niko’s late grandfather’s house where Dimitris lives when he’s not out watching his herd. Dimitris whipped us up a quick and very traditional Cretan breakfast that consisted of sliced tomatoes covered in salt, thick slices of cheese, boiled eggs, and moistened paximathia.  After laying out all the goodies on the table he brought out three shot glasses and an iced bottle of homemade raki. A good start to anyone’s morning! We ate in contented silence until every freshly prepared morsel was gone, a point that Dimitris declared was of the utmost importance, for like every Cretan, he believes that the worst possible event amidst any scenario would be for his guests to go hungry.

After our wonderful brunch, we all headed off to visit Niko’s other uncle who, as it happens, was in the middle of making homemade cheese from his own sheeps and goats.  We walked into his small kitchen to find the bear of a man laboring over a huge vat of milky goo above which was set a large plank of wood which held the cheese strainer itself. IMG_4524_FotorThe man was pushing all of his weight onto the gooey curds that were collecting into a recognizable cheese round at the bottom of the plastic strainer. The small room was hot and humid due to his efforts, and we gathered around him, fascinated as he skilfully pummelled the curds into shape.  After laughing, watching, and exchanging a few words in Greek it was time to make our way down to Dimitris farm itself. We had passed the entrance, a lonely old dirt road which leads off the main road a little ways down from the village, on our way up to the Kafeteria. Now, instead of passing it by, Nikos maneuvered his small Fiat down the dirt path which is largely comprised of potholes and large divots until we reached the large warehouse of a building that marked its end.  As we pulled up I saw two black goats running across the building’s roof. “Goats! On the roof!” I cried, stunned eyes turning to Nikos with a gleeful look of delight on my face. He laughed then explained, “there’s a rule here -goats own everything and can go anywhere. We have no say in where or what they do.” This rule turned out to be quite accurate as I noticed more goats strutting around in unusual places -such as in feeding troughs and the beds of trucks. Although there are usually always goats kept together with sheep, many goats still roam free on CIMG_4741_Fotorrete and can often be seen scaling impossible craggy heights or even climbing into trees in search of tender leaves in high branches. Goats milk and cheese is very popular and many households keep a goat or two tied up in the yard. Sheep, however, are shepherded in large numbers and their milk is highly prized for the delicious cheeses and yogurts it makes. Incidentally, Cretan sheep are not the pretty, short haired woolly cuties we tend to see in other Western cultures. These hardy beasts are not reared in sweet green meadows so much as on rocky scrubland and are long haired, wild and scraggy looking by comparison.  As I stood by the car, a large white dog came running up to me with its tongue out, stopped in front of me, cocked its head, and then began chasing its tail. “What’s the dog’s name?” I asked Dimitris. To this he coughed out a hearty laugh and shrugged his shoulders, “Sheep dog!” he answered in Greek. IMG_4643_FotorAs I sat playing with the adorable ball of fluff, the ground started to quake. The dog let out a loud yelp and ran off chasing after the long line of stampeding sheep that had just emerged from the barn. The dog, its fur being the same yellowy white color of the sheep’s wool, quickly vanished into the baa-ing flock. Among the hooves of the sheep I spotted a few lambs stumbling to keep up with their mothers. Behind the stampede came a yelling Dimitris and then a more subdued Nikos. They were trying to catch the one sheep that was blinded in one eye due to the cyst that had built up in its brain. After managing to catch it and steer it into the front yard of the living quarters, Nikos and Dimitris set to work preparing it for surgery. I decided to follow the rest of the flock along the mountain path that they had raced down to try and capture whatever iconic pictures I could.  My new sheepdog friend followed close behind me. IMG_4624_FotorWhether he wanted to protect his sheep friends, or me, I don’t know, but I welcomed the company and I enjoyed watching him frolic with the sheep as if he were one of them. Further down the path I noticed the crude outline to what I thought was a rock house in the distance. As I walked closer I discovered that it was just that, a small dry stone hut constructed from rocks that had obviously been collected from the surrounding landscape. My footsteps had alerted its occupants however, and just as I was a couple feet away, three or four goats poked their heads out of the stone doorway and bolted away before I could get any closer. The inside of the building was dark and dreary and I could just make out what looked like the remains of an old hearth in the corner.

When returning to the main farm I asked Nikos what the building was.  “That’s my grandfather’s old house.” He answered, “it’s called a Mitato, or shepherds hut.  Every shepherd used to have one back in the day, as a place to rest or shelter from the rain and cold when herding sheep on the mountain.  Nowadays, fewer people use them, but they’re still everywhere around Crete.” After a little research I found out that the Mitato is a structure made out of dry stones which are placed very carefully, almost “knitted”, one on top of the other.  Its form is ancient and consists of a main structure which has a vaulted shape, a paddock for the gathering of IMG_4764_Fotorthe sheep in order for them to be milked, and the “klidospito” which is a separate structure, almost underground, where cheese is stored and matured.   The construction and use of the Mitato is only one of the many ancient traditions followed by Cretan shepherds. When speaking with Dimitris and Niko I learned that as well as having developed traditional shelter, the shepherds of Crete have also created their own method of milking the animals.  Instead of sitting beside the creatures to milk them, as other shepherds do, Cretan shepherds stand above the animal and straddle it between their legs while milking it from behind. While this milking strategy has recently changed due to the introduction of sheep and goat milking machines, it is still a method used today by traditional, small scale farms.  

Along with having traditional structures and milking methods, Crete has native goat and sheep species that have inhabited the island for generations.  While many shepherds, including Dimitris, also raise IMG_4735_Fotorimported sheep and goats – mainly due to their larger amount of milk productivity – many shepherds raise the local species as well, due to their being more resilient and accustomed to the climate and local terrain.  “The local sheep survive better, especially during harsh rainy, cold winters. I never have to feed them, they just fend for themselves in the mountains and valleys. The imported ones need a lot of attention, food, medicine… they’re overall more work, but they do produce very good quality milk and cheese – and lots of it.  The Cretan sheep produce well too, just not as much. Cretan sheep produce more babies though!” Dimitris informed me in Greek which Nikos then quickly translated into English.

When asking what are the biggest problems and struggles Cretan shepherds face today, I was told that there are certain issues.  The biggest problem the shepherds face is low income. Instead of selling their own produce, shepherds usually rely on middlemen who buy their products and sell them on to large butcher chains or supermarkets.  These salesmen are notorious for setting very low prices when purchasing produce from shepherds and farmers, and then selling it for significantly more than what they bought it for.IMG_4948_Fotor While this is a basic business strategy, many shepherds believe that it is unfair because they don’t feel they are getting a good price for the incredibly hard amount of work they do every day.  On top of this, shepherds usually enter into a seasonal contract with these salesmen, and instead of paying the shepherd directly, these agents either give them a cheque which can only be cashed at the end of the season, or, instead of cash, the agent pays the farmer in feed. The feed is often the cheapest type of feed on the market and is not necessarily the brand the shepherd or farmer in question would chose to give their animals.  As well as having to deal with crooked businessmen, shepherds often have to deal with rival shepherds and villages in the form of sheep stealing. Sadly, this is a common occurrence which keeps every shepherd on their toes 24/7. “Everynight I must sleep here with my flock or one of my sons must stay here. It’s too dangerous to leave them alone” said Dimitris. IMG_4870_Fotor“It’s one of the reasons why his farm is so high up in the mountains. You have to be located pretty much in the middle of nowhere in order for your flock to be safe”  Nikos added. (One of the island’s most favourite dishes is called Kleftiko – which literally means ‘stolen’ and is the most delicious baked lamb which the sheep rustlers would cook in a makeshift fire pit which was covered with earth to prevent the delicious scent of roasted, stolen, lamb from wafting around the hillsides….). When asking if they’ve ever considered bringing in the police to help stop such crimes, both men scoffed. “They wouldn’t be able to do much and it’s very unlikely that they would come all the way up here in the mountains to help us villagers.”  explained Dimitris. This is not the first time I have heard a distinction between the village people and city people of Crete, specifically in regards to local law enforcement. Maybe in part it’s due to the traditional Cretan people’s pride, and partly due to the closed minds of city cops when it comes to the village way of life, but there is a definite rift between the ways of the villagers and urban people of the island.

Shepherding in Crete is a tradition that has been passed down for countless generations. It is a simple life, a hard, tough and often lonely, way of making a living which involves a dedication and passion for the time-honoured skills and way of life it represents. IMG_4545_FotorIt is not surprising to learn that much of the traditional music and songs of Crete hark back to the lonely shepherd’s flute and his love for this beautiful, majestic island. The people of the mountains of Crete preserve and maintain a culture which  has managed to keep the people of Crete alive for thousands of years, and still do today. While westernization and industrial farming have begun to challenge these traditional ways of Cretan life, the resiliently stubborn Cretan people have refused to let go of their sacred past and continue to work to preserve and teach their traditions to future generations. To this day, you can see shepherds all over Crete, with their crook slung across their shoulders, herding their flock – like distant dots on the landscape – trailing up the mountainside or watching over their sheep, grazing in flower-strewn meadows, and, while it may be hard work, made even harder by the fast pace of modern life, I believe shepherding and traditional sheep and goat farming is an industry that will live on in Crete for many years to come.

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