In mountain regions of Slovakia, sheep & cattle grazing for centuries belonged to the one of the most important ways of supporting extensive families. Both cattle and horses used to be grazed in valleys and forest clearings. Oakwoods and beechwoods were most suitable for swine grazing as acorns and mast were plentiful (this seed browsing was locally called zir). Sheep and goats were far less demanding, satisfying their hunger on windthrow clearings, clearcuts, bushy hillsides and ditches, where they were feeding on tree & bush twigs and even on green matter.
Originally, shepherding concentrated around the settlements. Settlers were clearing immediate surroundings of their dwellings off trees (using either felling or fire) to provide them with open spaces, gradually being turned into orchards, gardens, meadows, pastures and arable land. Forests themselves were considered suitable places for grazing. In mountainous regions, cattle grazing was commonly linked to forest litter raking. This material was popularly used to replace straw fodder as cereals growing was very limited in these areas, resulting thus in a great straw shortage. Undoubtedly, this method had seriously damaging effect on the forest environment. Soil was being robbed off humus and nutrients and very often it lead to direct transplants damage.
Since the 14th century, a new unique grazing method- Wallachian cattle grazing, was in use. This method was brought to us by the Wallachians who came to our territory from what is nowadays Romania. The period of their “invasion” is called Wallachian colonization. Their arrival was probably linked to Turkish and Tartar invasions. Their notoriously famous plundering raids left many times no stone upturned on vast territories. The Wallachians were establishing their own settlements, but gradually they merged with native Slovak inhabitants.Their influence on our traditions is very significant and is very much apparent to these days. Step by step the Wallachian changed into wallachian with a small letter, that is to say a peasant exercising the wallachian grazing method and it was also commonly used for a lower rank labourer on a sheep farm (one lever lower rank than a chief sheepman called ‘baca’).
Wallachians were very modest and undemanding. Sheep and goat keeping belonged to their main livelihood activities. For the main part of the year, they were living in forests and alpine meadows where they erected very simple temporary dwellings called “salase”. This way, the pressure put on forestland was doubled. Apart from the pressure, existing on the bottom timberline due to the arable land enlargement efforts, there was also pressure on the alpine tree limit linked to the attempts of artificial alpine meadows spreading.
Originally, the Wallachians were very exploitive towards forests. On top of the traditional wood-pasturing and a new crops destruction, they also caused serious damage by illegal tree felling for cattle grub (so called “letnina”) and by chopping off conifer brushwood for winter animal bedding (called “mraznice”). This way, a lot of wood was being left behind in forests and thus wasted. According to some written evidence, its volume was so big that it was many times impossible to walk through the forest. For this particular reason, the relationship between foresters and wallachians was problematic, many times tense. A very nice description of the talk between a young forestry novice and an old chief sheepman was depicted in the Svantner’s novel “ Alpine meadows bride” (Nevesta hol in Slovak):
Oh, well, the old sheepman had a very serious reason for his hair going grey. I did not want to add to his trouble. I let him know that I was staying under the Prielom saddle, which allowed me to inspect all young growths under Velky Zvon (“Big Bell”). It got through to him straight away as when I was inquiring about the borderline (meaning the forest management unit borderline) he came outside and willingly strumming silhouettes of hills, hillsides and alpine meadows….
Next excerpt shows us the whole extent of Slovak wallachian grazing “style”, which is hard to imagine these days:
…Then the most unbelievable rumour came around that cattle is coming back from alpine meadows. Whose heart would be left unbroken? Impossible! What’s the date today? Asked and when they were rewarded with a prompt answer, they said: “Well, they should be left up here for two more weeks as the custom is to leave on Bartolomej day (related to a certain date in Slovak calendar). Yet the true state of matter was telling them otherwise. In a while, the whole village was veiled in a cloud of thick dust and the loghouses were shaken by the sound of almost wild beasts trampling around. Firstly, the wallachians from behind the Prielom rushed down. Supposedly they were very impatient as they were the closest to Kotlisko (‘Cwm”). Following them till the very midday, as if they were dropping off some sack, were alternatively young bulls, oxen and sheep. No one herd passed through when the leaders of the following one were appearing with huge bells ringing on their necks. All herds were passing through Prietrziny village. They were only divided after leaving last dwellings behind. Ones were turning up towards the River Hron, others were heading down, towards the countryside. Shepherds were following them closely behind. They were covered in dust all over, their voices down from constant shouting. Not extremely willing to stop by inquisitive folks, they were even more unwilling to respond to their snoopy questions, only sometimes leisurely pointing their sticks to the sky. No better explanation was provided. Surely the sky must have clear out any doubtfulness one could be left with. Although the sky was speechless, its appearance was telling the whole story....