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CRETE: The Last Shepherds

Words by Alex KINGAlex Kind portraitPictures by Angelos CHRISTOFILOPOULOSAngelos Christofilopoulos portrait

In modern day Europe, free roaming shepherds are an endangered breed. Due to industrialised farming and the privatisation of land, surviving as a nomad is no longer an option in much of the West. Even on the Greek island of Crete, this millennia-old tradition is increasingly under threat.

Summer in Malia is a rite of passage for teens and twenty-somethings from across Europe. Each year, thousands descend on the seaside resort on Crete’s northern coast. They come in search of sun and sex, of course, and pass their time roasting on sun loungers, listening to europop, drinking cheap alcohol and, all too often, making trips to the emergency room.

But just a short drive away, on the other side of the nearby mountains, which rise majestically out of the Aegean Sea, young Cretans are living a very different existence. Their rites of passage have changed little over the centuries — and there isn’t a Jägerbomb in sight. Rather than frolicking on package holidays, many Cretan teenagers still decide to become shepherds, following a path well-trodden by their ancestors; climbing into the mountains with a flock of sheep in tow.

Centuries of tradition

Summiting a ridge, you see the Lasithi Plateau stretching out like a big patchwork quilt below, surrounded on all sides by thousand-metre mountains. A faded sign welcomes us to “Lasithi Municipality: The birthplace of Zeus and the beginning of Europe.” According to mythology, Dikteon Andron, a sprawling cave lined with stalactites on the edge of the plateau, is where the king of the ancient Greek gods was born. This is, after all, the land where the Minoans arrived from Africa 5,000 years ago and rose to become Europe’s first advanced civilisation during the Bronze Age, projecting their military, naval and commercial power across the Mediterranean.

Outside the village of Mesa Lasithi, there are a jumble of small fields. Kosti Peponis, a 25-year-old shepherd, is sitting astride his tractor, plowing the rich brown earth before planting hay for his flock. He’s a slender man with tattered boots and an infectious smile. “When I’m not tending to the sheep I work in the meadows,” Kosti explains, once he’s finished. “We also grow potatoes. But even with all of this, we are only just able to cover our costs. Almost nothing is left in our pockets. We’re always looking for other ways to provide for our kids, our families.”

It’s late November. The sun is getting low in the sky and Kosti is eager to reach his sheep before nightfall. The animals have been brought down from their summer pastures high up in the mountains to a tree-lined winter enclosure and are currently giving birth to new lambs. “As far back as I can remember I’ve liked sheep,” he says. “It’s a passion. When I’m around my flock, I feel calm.”

As Kosti fills the troughs with feed pellets and hay, Iro, his wife, arrives with their youngest child, fifteen-month-old Agisilaos. Iro is from Serres in northern mainland Greece. Also 25, she has long dark hair tied in a bun, and a warm, if stand-firm, demeanour. They met at agricultural school, married and moved back to Kosti’s village to start a family together. Dressed in a fluffy blue onesie with a teddy bear hood, Agisilaos stands at a distance with his mother as he watches his dad work. Soon, curiosity overcomes fear and he bounds gingerly over to a group of sheep, who tower over him.

“When I came back from military service, at 21, I took ten of my dad’s sheep,” Kosti says. “Slowly, slowly, slowly, I grew their numbers to the around 200 I have now. Every year I’m trying to increase the quality of the sheep, their milk, their lambs. You’re always learning new things, nobody knows everything. You have to be a doctor, too. They can’t talk to you, so you have to see the subtle differences in the animals. You have to be with the sheep from the moment you wake up to when you go home to sleep, 365 days a year. There’s no time for holidays.”

A view over the Nida Plateau.
A view over the Nida Plateau.

Agisilaos knows what’s coming next. He goes over and yanks on the cord holding the feeding enclosure shut. The sheep know the game too and line up patiently behind the toddler, eager to eat. Kosti finishes the preparations, scoops his son up in his arms and pulls open the gate. Agisilaos watches mesmerised as the sheep cascade through the opening like a river of grubby wool, bleating as they go.

Is he scared? “Only of the big ones,” Iro says. Kosti puts Agisilaos down and lunges towards one of the groups of lambs playing together. They scatter but he manages to catch one by the hind legs. He cradles it in his arms, before offering it to Agisilaos, who grabs the struggling lamb in a bear hug — clearly delighted — and Kosti helps him carry it to Iro. “This is how it all began with me,” Kosti says, as he watches Agisilaos proudly.

Shepherding in Crete has been like this for centuries: son watching father, passing his knowledge of rearing sheep and living off the land on to his own child, and so on, over and over again. But that chain linking the generations could soon be broken once and for all. When we arrive at his small house in the village, Kosti lays out his homemade cheese and raki, and explains that village life is slowly fading away.

“I remember when I was 12 or 13 years old, there would be nearly a hundred kids in the village square,” he says, mournfully. “But now it’s almost deserted. I am the only young man with children. It’s just me. Most of the people here are over 75 years old now.”

Between 2008 and 2016, the economy shrunk by a quarter due to the worst recession in the European Union’s history and the following Greek debt crisis that erupted in 2009-2010. The young suffered worst of all, with youth unemployment peaking at over 50%. Young people made up the majority of the nearly half a million Greeks who were forced to emigrate in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Yet the immense island of Crete proved more resilient to the crisis, thanks to strong tourism and agricultural sectors. As a result, fewer young Cretans were forced to leave their homeland than in many other regions of Greece. Across the country, emigration was much higher from urban than rural areas. In fact, the huge olive harvest brings in a wave of migrant labour each year, from Albania and further afield. Many teenage boys in rural areas still grow up seeing shepherding as a viable future and some can’t wait to leave school to get started. The reality for shepherds like Kosti, though, is far from easy.

“As a shepherd, every year is a battle,” Kosti continues. “You’re fighting to find solutions, how to make it work. But every year I write up the income and the expenses: zero… zero… zero… Somewhere in your mind, there’s a hope that things will improve and that’s why I keep going. If things carry on as they are, perhaps we will have to leave too. But the thought of leaving really makes me sick.”

High risk and low returns

Perched 740 metres up on the north face of Mount Psiloritis, Anogeia is a village famous across Greece for its historic displays of bravery against the occupying Ottomans and then Germans during WWII. Thanks to agriculture and tourism, Anogeia is larger and more prosperous than Mesa Lasithi. It boasts a more vibrant social life, too. In a kafeneio in town, Kostas Sbokos is relaxing with some friends over coffee and cigarettes after a morning’s work tending his flock. He’s an imposing figure, with broad shoulders, a thick black beard and camouflage trousers, but he’s thoughtful and welcoming. Once he’s ready and rested, he jumps in an old Lada 4×4 and heads down to the barn where his flock spends the winter.

Kostas and his cousin Andreas Sbokos, both 25, clean the barn, prepare the feed and drive the flock off the slopes inside to eat. “You can see this land has been overgrazed,” Kostas explains. “The sheep consume everything and there’s nothing left. In the summer, it’s easier. The sheep are roaming free, further up in the mountains. But still, there are disputes over land, which can escalate — we even had a murder recently.” Vendettas have long been a feature of rural life in Crete, with inter-family disputes settled through violence. Although they have long been on the decline, every once in a while, feuds still end in death.

When the flock is confined to the enclosure, feeding and vaccinations are costly. For six months, morning and evening, Kostas and Andreas milk 600 sheep by hand. “The milk is very strong, with a high fat content, because of the altitude, the grass and green clover in their diet,” Kostas explains. “The meat is really high quality, too, it’s red inside. It’s nothing like industrially-produced lamb, which is pumped full of hormones — they’re like monsters. But it’s cheaper and that’s pushing the price down for our meat, too. The price per kilo for our lamb is so low now, you’re left with almost nothing after expenses.”

A view over the Lasithi Plain.
A view over the Lasithi Plain.

After milking, the sheep head back out into the pasture and are rejoined by their lambs, 400 of whom have been born over the last few weeks. Kostas picks one up who was born this morning and still has the liquid from his mother’s womb in his fur. Like Kosti, Kostas has been around sheep since a young age. He’s also travelled widely, but this is the life he’s chosen.

“I’ve been to Athens, I’ve been to Turkey, I’ve been to Italy” Kostas says. “I go, I enjoy it and I come home. Cities are really restricting. I couldn’t open my door in the morning and see concrete. Athens is a jungle. We are a small community but it’s close-knit. Here we have freedom. You are the boss.”

Kostas has a smartphone, Facebook and an Instagram account — just like any other twenty-something across Europe. Living in Anogeia, he doesn’t feel isolated or like he’s missing out on anything important that his contemporaries enjoy. He also has the support of his family, who own a hotel in the village. But the squeeze on small producers worries both Kostas and Andreas. “I have made my life here, I have my job and I have no desire to leave,” Kostas reflects. “But if I knew how things would be now, I would have done something else.” 

“If it doesn’t change, there are no prospects,” Andreas agrees. “It’s not worth it. The only thing you’re left with at the end of the day is exhaustion.”

Iro Peponis (25) in her car near the village of Mesa Lasithi. The village is located in eastern Crete at the Lasithi Plateau, which lies 850 metres above sea level.
Iro Peponis in her car near the village of Mesa Lasithi.

A dying breed?

Surviving as a small-scale traditional producer seems to be getting tougher each year. Nobody is making things easier for Kosti either. He wishes he had the funds to build a modern facility for his sheep. His first subsidy payment from the EU Common Agricultural Policy was much smaller than he expected and will make little difference to his overall situation. The start-up costs, permits and certifications he needs to build a traditional organic cheese factory make that a non-starter, too. Cretan products, particularly olive oil, are highly sought after and often sell for a premium around Europe. But finding markets abroad and getting organic credentials is often too complex or expensive for smaller farmers.

The view from Kostis and Iro’s House over the village of Mesa Lasithi.
The view from Kostis and Iro’s House over the village of Mesa Lasithi.

“I’ve never felt like we live on the far fringes of Greece,” he says. “I am Cretan, I am Greek, I am European — it’s important. Of course I feel a connection and a sense of safety. But successive governments and middlemen have ruined the livestock farmers and agriculturalists. I believe they are trying to destroy Greece as a primary producer and turn it solely into a tourist destination. Not everyone can own a hotel in Malia.”

Many small producers across the continent have embraced ecotourism as a means of surviving but Mesa Lasithi is outside the tourist hotspots and the costs involved make adapting to that model a big risk, which is out of Kosti’s reach for now.

At times, it can feel like Kosti is fighting a lone battle, but he has support from his family: he works in the fields with his father and his mother helps mind his sons when he and Iro are out working. “I always wanted to have children, to have a family, but unfortunately we’ve fallen on hard times,” Kosti says. “I want my kids to work hard at school, to free them from the animals. If you study or learn a foreign language you have more choices; they could still be involved with the animals, but as a vet, let’s say, a professional. My situation… this is not a living.”

A view over the Nida Plateau.
The Nida Plateau.

Right now, Kosti is relaxed and content. The working day is over, darkness has fallen, the sheep are stowed away safely and he is at home with his young family in their cosy little house. The tractor is parked outside, the wood fire is burning, Iro is making Sfakia pies with cheese from their own sheep. The flat screen TV hanging on the wall is showing football; Lefteris, Kosti’s five-year-old son, is glued to a smartphone, playing a shoot-em-up game; and Agisilaos is bouncing up and down and chuckling in his crib. As Kosti lounges back on the sofa and starts playfighting with Lefteris, the feeling of warmth inside his home makes it obvious that he is a man who is rich in all the things that matter in life.

“When things got really tough, I looked into leaving, with a heavy heart,” Kosti admits. “But I was born here, I grew up here. I don’t want to leave my homeland and I don’t want to leave my animals. When I see a sick sheep, I feel it within me and once they recover, I feel better again. I am connected to my animals and my land. This is my passion.”