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"I don't even have the time to go to Ioannina for a coffee. I'm occupied with the animals 24/7; if I abandon them they will abandon me as well. I'm not a civil servant, so I have no vacation time. The prime minister has more free time than I do". 45 year-old Tolis Psochios is the last shepherd left in the historical Syrrako, which is located on the slope of Peristeri mountain in eastern Epirus, at ab altitude of 1,200 meters.
The tradition disappears
Five hundred Tolis’ village is deserted during the winter, due to bad weather conditions, but he insists on staying there to take care of his animals. Five hundred years of glorious livestock tradition in picturesque Syrrako will come to an end, if this “last Mohican” decides to switch professions and live with his family in Ioannina, where one can find state welfare and schools. So what if Napoleon's army wore capes made of Syrrako sheep's wool, so what if Kolletis, the first parliamentary prime minister of Greece was born there?
The old merchants who searched for original livestock products high and low were pushed out of the trade by men interested only in profit. As a result, traditional breeders were marginalised in mountainous regions, unable to trade their products. The milk industry cartels can easily make a big profit selling their very expensive milk, which tastes as if it is watered, so why bother sending a small barrel to Mount Tzoumerka in order to load the delicious milk of Tolis the shepherd?
"I have the best meat in Greece and milk with 8.5% fat, both of which are certified biological products. There is no support from the government though, nor does any trading web reach my village. I'm sick and tired of their promises; that’s all I get, never any support".
Regardless of the problems, the shepherd is proud of his 1.000 animals, among which there are some "komisana" sheep with great wool and a reddish muzzle, goats from Skopelos Island and calves of a special breed called "vrachikeratiki". Three hundred years ago some local merchants brought 182 "komisana" sheep from Sicily and since then the race has been linked to the village. Fortunately, these sheep are subsidized by the European Union, which sends specialists in order to study them, because they are considered very resistant to encephalopathy.
Bears and snakes
I didn't The meat is not a meal only for Tolis, his family and his devoted clients, but also for hungry bears and wolves. "I have made many wolves run away from me. I take off my jacket and I spin it in the air yelling in order to frighten them. I once saw a bear eating two of my sheep. It got scared when it saw me and so was I. I didn't know what to do. Shoot the animal for being hungry? They must eat somehow. It's the circle of life. I don't kill wild animals; I prefer to ask for compensation from the Agricultural Insurance Organism when they kill my animals".
The numerous snakes on the mountains are also a danger for the shepherd’s animals. While we were talking, he saw a goat stumbling with the corner of his eye. He immediately ran to it and started running his hands over its legs. "It has been bitten by a snake and unless I remove the poison it will die in horrible pain", he said. He grabbed a syringe and started puncturing the skin around the bite. The animal screamed in terrible pain, but afterwards it calmed down and rested in relief in the animal pen.
As we left the village we saw some ewes in a corner pen, as if they were imprisoned in isolation. We asked Tolis what was that about and he answered: “I put them in the disciplinary area because they're not letting their lambs nurse. I get in and hold them by force, helping their young drink some milk. But even this way, they resist and kick their hungry lambs. Unfortunately, the maternal instinct weakens not only in the human heart, but also in animals.”
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS