The Czech Republic is learning to live with a special breed of guardian that fears nothing. From Respekt.
Frantisek Groessl is wearing a hat, because the sun is about to start hitting hard, and he will be doing things out in the pasture. Before that, however, he needs to carry out a delicate task: Convince his two giant dogs to jump into the cargo bed of his pickup truck a second time. He pulls the leashes around their woolly necks tighter, slapping the metal floor of the vehicle with his hand. The younger dog jumps into the truck, but the older, female dog pretends not to hear him. As he tries to load her into the vehicle with his hands, her big body suddenly goes limp and lifeless, as if it wanted to flow through the owner’s hands. “This is typical of herding dogs,” Groessl says. “It makes no sense to them to jump into the truck twice.”
It does, however, make sense to the pair of filmmakers who got the go-ahead of one of the best-known Czech breeders of the Sarplaninac dogs to come and film the animals. The jump into the truck’s bed is indicated in their shooting script, and they did not think the first jump was good enough. Groessl promised them they would get their shot on the second try. He now takes the dog into his arms, using all of his strength to get her onto the truck bed. He wants people to know about herding dogs. He thinks they are the best antidote to the fear of wolves, which is spreading among Czech livestock farmers. But he also has a warning: “Keeping herding dogs is not for everyone.”
What Connects Us
The fall of communism brought unprecedented opportunities, and Frantisek Groessl and his wife Katerina tried to make good use of them. In a distant corner of the Cesky les, or Upper Palatine Forest, on the German border, they opened an eco-center and put on lectures, exhibitions, and events such as Earth Day or Car-Free Days. They even ran a rescue center for birds, where they had the chance to actually implement the ideas behind those Car-Free Days: They would ride their bicycles to reach the injured birds, carrying them in backpacks and then treating them at their center. “With the arrival of the internet, our information center lost its purpose, as people could now find things out for themselves,” Katerina says. Her husband adds, “We came to the conclusion that instead of saving animals it would make more sense to try and save localities.”
What this looks like in practice can be seen on a hill outside Tasnovice, near the town of Domazlice. This striking geological formation, with its steep slopes, rocks and flat top, once had a Slavic fortified settlement on its summit. What remained of the settlement was flora formed by centuries of traditional farming, which, thanks to the hill’s complicated terrain, was never destroyed by modern agriculture. But the hill was becoming overgrown and traditional grazing had to be reintroduced in order to maintain its unique character.
That was an opportunity for the Groessls. When they first learned about the special hill 25 years ago, they gradually started moving their sheep, goats, and even yaks here from other pastures. The yaks were of particular interest because compared to today’s over-bred cows, they offer a subtle advantage: their much lighter weight. This means that as they move around the pasture, they push the seeds of rare plants into the ground in such a way that the seeds will germinate and grow into beautiful plants, vastly improving the species diversity of the meadow.
“In terms of their weight, yaks are similar to medieval cattle, so you can use them to mimic the original form of grazing,” says Katerina Groesslova, adding that they traveled as far as a zoo in Tallinn, Estonia, to buy one of their first yaks. They used the same logic to select their sheep, too: Instead of over-bred machines that are good for wool and meat, they chose the original Wallachian breed, which is easy to care for. They acquired their goats from a number of local breeders.
“We’re not farmers, we’re protectors of nature,” Frantisek Groessl maintains, adding that they have no economic use for their 45 yaks, 200 sheep, and 50 goats. Instead, they just let them live in localities of high natural value all year long, under an agreement with the Cesky les Protected Landscape Area. These sites are spread over a territory of some 40 x 20 kilometers.
The hill outside Tasnovice is one of the sites. Human visitors will appreciate the views, the run-down church, and the cemetery as though dipped in green vegetation, while its four-legged inhabitants like the rugged terrain full of hiding spots, shrubs, and trees. It is here that we find the pair of Sarplaninac dogs, hiding from the midday sun after the film shoot. They have chosen higher ground for their day-time idling, where they have the best views of the pasture and its population. Together with the one-meter electrified plastic fence, the two dogs are protection against what connects the Groessls with the farmers – the threat to their animals posed by the growing number of wolves living in the area.
The wolves are currently doing very well in the sparsely populated land of the Upper Palatine Forest. “Five years ago, we only had two pairs of wolves. Now we have two packs, one with an estimated six members, the other around eight. Then there are apparently two lone wolves here as well,” Groessl says. He himself is of the opinion that wolves that are proven to have attacked farm animals (this can be established from DNA analysis of material left on the pasture) should be shot.
“They teach this to their young, who, as they grow up, move as far as hundreds of kilometers away, spreading the practice dangerously,” Groessl says. But he doesn’t think that all wolves should be shot. “I don’t think that’s realistic. There are many wolves in Europe, and they migrate over large distances. They would have to be exterminated in all of Europe, and people don’t want that. Moreover, the numbers of wolves are going up not only because they are protected, but also because there’s an extreme abundance of food available to them. There have never been as many animals living in the forest as there are right now.” He has come across a number of wolves on his pastures. But they have never managed to hunt down an animal of his, which, in his opinion, is thanks to his dogs.
When we enter the fenced-off pasture with Groessl, the dogs stand up and come closer to take a better look at us. They don’t bark. “If you showed up here on your own, you’d see a different kind of show,” says the breeder as he reaches into his bag for some dog treats. “Give this to them, that will help.” By “show” he means the danger that these strong dogs are renowned for posing to any disrupters of the herd.
Two kinds of dogs are used for sheep farming: sheepdogs and cattle dogs. The former manage the herd, gathering it into a flock or, if necessary, dividing it into several parts. They are used on open pastures. Cattle dogs, on the other hand, are very large animals that live in fenced-off pastures and are tasked with protecting the herd from wolves and bears. They can also be kept as pets, but if they are supposed to fulfill their protective role, they require very particular treatment.
The Groessl dogs are always with the animals out in the pasture, and are kept on a leash whenever they’re taken elsewhere. They only let a few people that they’re familiar with inside the fence (the Groessls and their children), and they would probably attack anyone else. Groessl says they cannot be trained to always obey their owner, and that they’re hard to control. Instead, they have to be trained so as to do best the job they’re supposed to do, which is protect the animals in the pasture.
The Groessls selected their first cattle dogs five years ago. “We did it at a time when the use of cattle dogs as protection against wolves wasn’t really a thing here. We studied what we could and called some people in Slovakia,” Katerina Groesslova says. They had no preference other than not wanting a giant dog that would overtop their one-meter fence. “Other people wouldn’t have liked that,” Frantisek Groessl puts in.
They then purchased Sarplaninac puppies in the Czech Republic and trained them over a number of years. [Also known as the Yugoslavian Shepherd, the breed takes it name from the Sar mountains spanning the North Macedonia–Kosovo border.] A cattle dog must first and foremost become familiar with the animals it protects. That’s why they first kept the puppies in a small pen with the lambs. When they were about six months old, they were let out on the pasture, where they learned to live alongside the electric fence. “This is a process that mustn’t be rushed. If a puppy ever got a sting from the electric fence, it would be a big shock for it, and it could start being fearful,” Groessl says.
Another key factor is the first encounter with wolves. This, too, should never be rushed, so that the young dog is not afraid during the encounter, and that this feeling of fear doesn’t stay with it. “What I did was I would sleep in a tent and later in a caravan near the pasture, so that I could help them out in the case of an encounter with the wolves,” explains Groessl.
He also says that even an independent and dangerous dog such as the Sarplaninac still needs to be somewhat socialized with humans. “You need to be able to move it to another pasture, or to get it vaccinated,” he says. He also insists that you need to resist the temptation to take the cattle dog home with you. “That would be a real problem. The dog would quickly find out that humans are much more attractive companions than sheep, and it would be motivated to run away from the enclosure. In other words, the bond between a cattle dog and humans needs to be weak, but at the same time, you need to be able to manipulate the dog in specific situations,” he explains.
The Groessls write a blog about the demanding training of cattle dogs, and they give interviews to the media. Among other things, they explain that keeping this type of dog is an uncertain business. “You have a 50% chance that you won’t be successful and that the dog will not be a protector. And you will only find this out once it’s two or three years old. Then you may realize that it is scared out on the pasture at night, and that’s bad,” Frantisek Groessl says.
Hard Workers, but Not Friends
His dogs coped well with the training. They live out on the pasture all year long, they don’t chase sheep or goats, they let people guide them safely to new pastures, and they get vaccinated. They do bark at passing hikers, but only as a warning. Most importantly, however, they are awake at night and they can sense approaching wolves even when they’re a kilometer away. They then stand near the fence, waiting for the wolves to pick a strategy. If there are more than a few wolves, they split up and continue along the fence in two directions. In that case, the dogs split up as well, watching the wolves.
“So far they have not had to take them on, but if the wolves managed to get inside the fence, they would definitely confront them then. But wolves do not attack cattle dogs, because the dogs are big and strong, meaning the wolves could easily get injured. And if a beast gets injured out in the wild, that’s it for them, so they try to prevent that from happening. Moreover, wolves here are not really motivated to attack domestic animals, because there are plenty of other animals available to them out there in the wild,” Groessl says.
And what does he think about the concerns some people have when it comes to the dangerous cattle dogs? “If the number of cattle dogs continues to grow, there will eventually be a conflict with a human being, and we need to get ready for that. But every smart herder will make sure to have his dogs secured, and will not be using those that could pose an extreme risk to people passing by.”
The people out and about on the pasture also have a role to play here, he says. “They must certainly never enter the fenced-off area. If the sheep are grazing freely, which is quite uncommon in the Czech Republic, they must never enter the herd. If they have their own dog with them, they must always have it on a leash. Ideally, they shouldn’t be approaching sheep and dogs at all.”
Not even those that eventually let themselves be filmed on the pickup’s bed.
Marek Svehla is the opinion editor at the Czech weekly Respekt, where this article originally appeared. Republished with permission. Translated by Matus Nemeth.