Until 25 years ago, it was said there were 20 sheep for every New Zealander. Now, however, they have make do with just seven each. A drastic decline, in the country that farms the most sheep in the world.
The figures are alarming everywhere, from Abruzzo-where for centuries vast migrating flocks were once generators of considerable wealth, and rich herders built noble palaces and sumptuous churches in the mountain villages-to Thessaly, in the heart of Greece, via Barbagia (Sardinia). The number of animals is falling and as a result, so too is the quantity of milk produced and processed. The price of sheep's milk is still too low, the lambs can no longer be sold and the wool from non-specialized breeds is nothing more than (toxic) waste requiring disposal. On Sunday September 20, the conference "Goodbye Sheep" at Cheese offered an opportunity to take stock of this slow and tragic decline in sheep farming.
The threat is not immediate, it's true, but the signs are still ominous. We are not saying that sheep-one of the domesticated animals no longer found wild in nature, whose survival thus depends on being farmed by humans-is at risk of extinction. In fact it is still one of the most farmed animals the world. Sheep have less environmental impact that other farmed livestock: their hooves don't compact the pasture but gently move the turf, their fleece picks up spores and seeds which are spread elsewhere, and so on. In fact it is thanks to the presence of sheep that the Abruzzian pastures have preserved a biodiversity of flora that has been lost elsewhere, in part thanks to the burden of cattle on the environment.
While the disappearance of sheep is worrying from the perspective of environmental equilibrium, the depopulation and abandonment of many mountain areas is of similar concern. What can be done?
Sheep's milk is rich and nutritious and is the base for some traditional products of extraordinary quality, which must absolutely be supported. However, we also need to eat more of their meat. At least in Italy, lamb has disappeared from everyday family tables and is found only at Christmas and Easter feasts, where chops and legs are consumed with a certain sense of guilt, fuelled by the campaigns of animal-rights activists and vegetarians.
Perhaps the ones to save the future of sheep farming will be the immigrants, particularly those from North Africa and the Middle East, the only ones left, it seems, to appreciate and seek out sheep's meat. At least, that is, until public policies start providing incentives for people to return to live in the most marginal areas and make their living from sheep farming.