Flemish shepherd breathes life into old practice, and moorland
A tough job
The rare plants and animals here demonstrate what a unique piece of nature this stretch of moorland is, next to the former military airfield in Ursel, East Flanders. The sheep that lie a little bit further, panting in the shade on this hot summer day, have a lot to do with this.
Between April and November, Ricour (pictured) herds her sheep on these moors and the adjacent Drongengoedbos nature reserve. Their grazing has been critical to the conservation of these moorlands. “If there were no sheep grazing here, this area would develop into a grassland or forest,” Ricour explains. “Those young birch saplings over there for example would soon dominate the landscape.”
Ten years ago, the spruce forest here was cut down and the soil scraped to restore the ancient moorland. Luckily, there were enough old seeds that the heath could grow again, Ricour explains. “But heather is a cultural landscape; sheep are part of it. And so is a shepherd.”
During our conversation, a couple of sheep have strayed from the herd. Ricour explains that they’re new and not yet accustomed to being herded into a flock. She shouts a few commands to sheepdogs Loetje and Mimi, who spring into action. In no time, they bring the sheep into the fold.
Ricour trained the dogs herself when she first took up shepherding six years ago. “In the beginning, I knew nothing. In Flanders, there are no shepherd training courses like there are in France and the Netherlands,” she explains. “But I learned to manage a flock quite well.”
The dogs nudge the herd to get moving again and, after a short walk, we arrive at a stretch of land overgrown with grass. Here and there, birch saplings have sprouted up. The sheep will have their work cut out.
The calmness in the heather next to the woods is almost overwhelming. Surely it must be hard to spend eight or nine hours alone here every day, with only the sheep, dogs and silence for company? “Absolutely not,” says Ricour. “I never get bored here. I study the plants and animals that I find on my way. That should be something you find interesting; otherwise this isn’t the job for you. As a child, I was crazy about animals and nature, and this passion has stayed over the years.”
People tend to have a very romantic image of a shepherd, but the reality is different
Ricour has set up a conservation project she calls Natuurkudde. The project has a contract with Flemish government agency Natuur en Bos (Nature and Woodlands) to manage this nature reserve, but that gives her little certainty, as these conservation contracts are regularly reviewed. And managing a flock with some 200 sheep is no easy feat.
“People tend to have a very romantic image of a shepherd. Walking with the sheep, sitting under a tree… The reality is different,” she says. “Shepherds in Flanders, and there are very few of them, have to live from their work in nature conservation.”
Pointing out that the meat and wool of sheep yield very little money today, she says: “It’s a pity these things have lost their value. And the cultural and historical importance of sheep farming for certain types of landscapes is barely recognised.”
Conservation isn’t Natuurkudde’s only activity: Ricour also offers educational walks in which individuals or groups can join her and the sheep. “Not with the intention of walking for miles but at the rhythm of the sheep – following the pace of the herd,” she explains. “If the sheep, like now, lie down to ruminate, then so be it. You should always respect the natural order of eating and resting as a shepherd.”