One for all – My life as a sheepherder

A book by Ruth Häckh

by Margrit Burch

Ruth Häckh has been a sheepherder with her flocks of up to 800 sheep for over 30 years. She spent four weeks on the road for the 200 kilometres that lie between the summer pastures on the German Swabian Alb and the winter quarters on Lake Constance.

Ruth Häckh with her herding dogs Sammy und Joey and her sheep.
(picture from the book)

Ruth Häckh was born in 1962, and her father was already a sheepherder with passion. As she was a very good student, the teacher came to her parents and told them that the girl had to attend grammar school. After graduating, she was looking for a possible career. At that time she loved to deal with animals. After a 15-month internship as a keeper in the Zoological Garden of Stuttgart, she knew that she didn’t want to work in a zoo. She decided to study archaeology because she had been allowed to work on excavations during her school years. After two years she decided to become a sheepherder like her father, since the university was too theoretical for her. She became the first wandering female sheepherder in Germany. First she completed her apprenticeship in her parents’ agricultural business and later she worked on farms in Australia and New Zealand. However, she was always drawn back to her Swabian homeland.
In her book1 Ruth Häckh describes impressively and in detail her work as a sheepherder. This profession is more a matter of vocation: above all, closeness to nature, a great love for the animals, sheep (merino sheep) and the old German herding dogs, and a special perseverance. The extent of the closeness to nature becomes apparent when it is pouring down all day long, when walking through mud and puddles all day long, when the wind is whistling in your ears and the rain is whipping your face, when the thermometer is falling below zero, your nose is turning red and your toes are threatening to freeze. Nevertheless, she wants this book to be understood as a declaration of love to the sheepherder’s profession. She has never regretted her career choice. It is the most beautiful profession in the world, but it is also laborious, exhausting and sometimes nerve-wracking. Many people would think it was a romantic job when they are watching sheep grazing peacefully in fine weather. But it is less romantic for the sheepherder who stands there and bears all the responsibility.

The work with the dogs is the most demanding. The sheepherder must learn to train his dogs himself. A well-trained herding dog must understand exactly what the sheepherder wants it to do and it must also be willing to obey the sheepherder. He should be able to walk many kilometres a day with a herd of sometimes up to 1,000 sheep and other herding dogs, and sometimes even cross busy roads. The training of a herding dog requires great patience, empathy and a firm stance.
Today the sheepherders have other problems on top of that: There is less and less grazing land. In addition, there are always new, absurd EU regulations. In 2013, Ruth Häckh demonstrated with sheepherders from all over Germany in front of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The aim was to be present when the court negotiated a complaint by German sheepherders against the individual electronic identification. Throughout Europe, sheepherders had bottled up resentments against this bureaucratic monster conceived by the EU. The German sheepherders had travelled from all over Germany in their traditional sheepherder’s clothing. Sheepherders from France and Scotland also came to carry the message of the German sheepherders back to their region. This was the beginning of a union of the European sheepherders.
Sheepherders of all countries, unite! It started with the trip to Luxembourg. Since then, Ruth Häckh, representing the German association of professional sheepherders, has been exchanging ideas with shepherd and sheepherders all over the world. Conferences, fairs and meetings were organised and she met sheperds from many parts of the world. Her travels have taken her to France, Italy, Kenya and India. She lectured and listened to lectures and noted that colleagues from everywhere are struggling to survive. The threatening reasons are similar everywhere: the low income that pasture farming generates. The shrinking habitat of their herds. A bureaucracy that complicates and disrupts the work of sheperds and sheepherders with absurd regulations. And finally predators, of which the wolf causes the greatest damage in Europe.
Conclusion: Ruth Häckh’s book is wonderful. It is entertaining, funny, very informative and heartwarmingly intimate. I was also impressed by her respect for humans and animals. There are many beautiful photos in it, and the reader can imagine a sheepherder’s life a little more realistically.    •

1    Häckh, Ruth. Eine für alle. Mein Leben als Schäferin. (One for all –  My life as a sheepherder) München 2018