Caring keepers wanted for Serb sheep

STARA PLANINA, Serbia – Sheep in eastern Serbia are in urgent need of caring shepherds to feed them, shear them and protect them from wolves. With young men leaving rural areas for the cities, farmers are having to advertise nationwide, offering good salaries and perks. And still they can’t get help. «Getting workers here is like in the westerns I watched as a kid,» said farmer Aleksandar Vasov, 39, in his farm near the Bulgarian border. «A stranger comes out of nowhere, works for a while, then leaves.» He has advertised in the employment office of the neighboring town of Dimitrovgrad, where unemployment is more than 60 percent, but so far with little success. Seasonal workers come from all over the country to Stara Planina, and don’t stay very long. «It’s a difficult job,» said Vasov, who gave up a veterinary practice in Belgrade to take over his grandfather’s farm. »Basically you’re on call 24 hours a day, feeding them, taking them to the mountains, lambing.» Good money Apart from the attractions of the outdoors, the money is pretty good for Serbia where the average salary is -300 a month and one third of the work force is officially unemployed. A shepherd can earn -2.50 ($3.30) per month per sheep, plus food, board, and working clothes. «I once had 100 sheep, now I have 20 because I can’t find anyone to help me,» said Ilko Dmitrov, 61, one of a dozen people left in one half-deserted village. «It’s difficult to find good workers. Some are really cruel to the animals, they beat them. The only ones willing to work are pensioners.» There were 300,000 sheep grazing the low hills of Stara Planina in the early 20th century. Now there are fewer than 10,000. The decline has hit the ecosystem, with new plants and bushes taking over the grassy landscape. Serbia’s Agriculture Ministry is planning a $32 million project jointly with the World Bank to revive the industry, support agriculture and develop agrotourism. Sandor Balani, 34, an ethnic Hungarian from the northern province of Vojvodina, came to Stara Planina 10 years ago to become a shepherd. He goes home once a year and the rest of the time he takes care of some 80 sheep. He said he loves his job. «It’s hardest in winter when there is a lot of snow,» Balani said. «But I would never give it up.»

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