‘I Was Born Among the Sheep’: Identity in Romanian Shepherd Protests

‘I Was Born Among the Sheep’: Identity in Romanian Shepherd Protests

Thomas O’Brien and Remus Cretan

Almost three decades since the 1989 revolutions, issues of identity are increasingly playing a role in Eastern European politics. The influx of refugees across the region in 2016, together with the persistent secondary status of countries in the region, has led to a questioning of their place in the European project. In addition, the increasing assertiveness of Russia, uncertainty for the EU from the Eurozone crisis and the looming effects of Brexit, have weakened expectations of linear progress. Drawing on Euroscepticism, states have attempted to push back against the dictates of the EU and assert their own interests. At the domestic level, this has involved a search for authenticity and claims of national identity linked to historical difference. Folk histories can play an important role, enabling the state to create a shared identity based on an imagined past. Our research into the role of identity in the Romanian shepherd protests considers how marginalised groups draw on folk histories, to mobilise and support identity-based claims.

The shepherd protests in Romania can be considered through the prism of identity and demonstrate the importance of traditional practices and culture in the politics of the region. On 15 December 2015, over 3000 shepherds gathered at the Parliament in Bucharest, to oppose new regulations restricting their winter grazing rights and the use of livestock protection dogs. Participants dressed in floor-length sheepskins, blew horns, and brandished traditional bells (talángă). Expressing the anger in the crowd, one shepherd shouted ‘I was born among the sheep and we will cut the lawmakers’ heads off. The size of the protest meant that riot police were deployed to maintain order and used tear gas to quell the protest. The government agreed to suspend the law and seek further consultation following negotiations with representatives of the shepherds. This represented a victory for the shepherds, highlighting the potential for identity to shape mobilisation and amplify claims. Drawing on interviews with shepherds who took part in or abstained from the protests, our research examined the extent to which these actors recognised and drew on a sense of collective identity in presenting their claims.

The significance of the protest was enhanced by the position of shepherds’ traditions and customs in the historical identity of Romania. As agricultural workers, shepherds have a low socio-economic status and are marginalised from much of contemporary society. However, their position is bolstered by their role in the folk history of the country, linked to its pastoral roots. The ongoing strength of this historical identity is illustrated by the foundational myth of Mioriţa: a tale of a shepherd who is warned by a talking lamb, about a plan by jealous shepherds to kill him. Instead of retaliating the shepherd accepts his fate, leading Juler (2014: 5) to argue that it is ‘sometimes seen as a symbol of Christian martyrdom… turning the other cheek’. The tale presents the shepherd as a foundational figure, capturing the idealised values of the nation and the tie to the land.

A feature of the life of the shepherd is the practice of transhumance, which involves moving livestock from highland pastures in the summer to lowland in the winter. Shepherds moving flocks have traditionally relied on livestock protection dogs (LPD) to guard their stock against predators, when on the move. These practices predated the communist regime that was overthrown in 1989, yet have been threatened by subsequent developments. Shepherds interviewed in our research argued that under the communist regime laws changed less frequently and were less tightly controlled in the absence of private property.

Paradoxically, moves towards a democratic political system have made the maintenance of traditional practices more difficult to maintain. Processes of decollectivisation and privatisation that took place under the democratising state led to increasing fragmentation of landholdings, making it harder for shepherds to negotiate the access rights necessary to maintain transhumant practices. In addition, the opening of the state to tourism and the concern for environmental sustainability has led to closer monitoring of livestock and restrictions on the use of LPDs, making transhumance more difficult. Stray dogs have also been an issue, including stray or ill LPDs, leading to the introduction of a law implementing a cull

As a geographically dispersed and economically marginalised group, shepherds’ ability to sufficiently coordinate to mobilise is limited. Shared identity therefore plays an important role in enabling them to overcome structural disadvantages. As Tarrow (2011: 21) has argued, ‘co-ordination of collective action depends on the trust and cooperation that are generated amongst participants by shared understandings and identities’. Expressions of identity were seen in the December protests, responding to the perceived threat to their way of life with slogans such as ‘The dog is upset he was fired’ and ‘I do not want to watch sheep anymore, just to watch the parliament members’. These claims reinforced a sense of collective identity among the shepherds, drawing on recognisable symbols against a group of actors threatening their way of life. Shepherds interviewed as part of the project reflected the strength of identity, with statements such as ‘I agree they could hunt but leave me to do the job which my forefathers did for hundreds of years’ and ‘we, the shepherds, are very united. If we hear of limiting our rules and rights then we have to protest’. Raising the spectre of a common enemy against tradition allowed the shepherds to activate us-them boundaries and strengthen the sense of collective identity.

Regarding specific issues the change in law proposed to address, the shepherds argued these were based on spurious grounds linked to corruption and mismanagement. Hunting in Romania is seen as an elite pursuit, with one participant claiming ‘I don’t like that most of the hunters are rich people who are in good relation to the parliament members’. This also reflects the fact that, under both the communist and postcommunist regimes, hunting has been an activity of the elite. Similar forms of claim were presented regarding the motivations around the potential ecological damage caused by the transit of sheep. One shepherd stated ‘our sheep are for thousands of years part of the landscape’. In questioning the restrictions on the movement of sheep, the shepherds highlighted the role of the EU in forcing them to change their traditional practices. One shepherd reflected on protests that erupted in 2009 over food hygiene arguing, ‘All our products were natural; now they have to be put in chemical conservants in large stores in order to maintain their taste’. Shepherds emphasise the existence of long held practices, questioning and resisting proposed need for change.

The approach of the shepherds in resisting attempts to restrict their traditional practices demonstrates the significance of identity in shaping protest. When combined with the foundational role of the shepherd in Romanian society, the shepherds were able to draw on traditional symbols to link their plight to perceived failings of the state. As argued by Hunt and Benford (2004: 447), the strength of collective identities derives from ‘a cultural representation, a set of shared meanings that are produced and reproduced, negotiated and renegotiated, in the interactions of individuals embedded in particular sociocultural contexts’. This case study has illustrated the significance of identities in the examination of contentious actions.

Hunt, S. and Benford, R. (2004) ‘Collective Identity, Solidarity and Commitment’. In The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, D. Snow, S. Soule and H. Kriesi (ed.) pp. 433-57. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Juler, C. (2014) ‘După Coada Oilor: Long-Distance Transhumance and Its Survival in Romania’, Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice, 4(4): 1-17.
Tarrow, S. (2011) Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Remus Creţan is Professor of Human Geography at the Department of Geography, West University of Timişoara, Romania. His research has dealt with regional and local identity politics – mainly focused on Roma people, political ecology and social movements. More specifically, current research includes geographies of inequality (e.g. social marginalization, social and environmental risk, human-animal relations) as well as development geography (resettlement by development, mono-industrialism). @RemusTim. Thomas O’Brien is a Lecturer in the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. His research has considered leadership during democratisation, environmental politics and social movements, and contentious politics. @TomOB_NZ . This article is based on a recently published paper O’Brien, T. and Creţan, R. (2018). The Role of Identity in the 2015 Romanian Shepherd Protests. Identities, ifirst. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2017.1400322

Image: Fagaras Mountains, July 2017, by Dr Florina Ardelean. Rights reserved.