Petition of the week: with extra sheep?

Sheep farmers in Germany receive support only for the grazed area. A petition wants to orient the support to the number of mother animals.

Keeping sheep is not a particularly profitable endeavor Photo: dpa

In the background, his dog yelps while Sven de Vries says into the phone, "At some point, you stand there and know neither in nor out." De Vries is one of the few itinerant shepherds in Germany and, at 36, one of the youngest. He is currently on the road with his 750 sheep. Now in winter near Bad Wurzach, in summer he is with "his girls," as he calls the sheep, in the Swabian Alb.

The day before, de Vries launched a petition; he is calling for a grazing animal premium, a direct payment from the first pillar of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy that each shepherd should receive per dam in his flock. This exists in 22 EU countries. Not in Germany. He tags his petition with the hashtag #SchafereiRetten.

On the very first day, more than 1,000 people signed the petition demanding that shepherds receive adequate financial support; a week later, the number had risen to more than 23,000. "It’s either up or topp – either we have shepherds or we don’t," says de Vries.

Whoever is a shepherd today, it is mainly out of idealism and because he wants to preserve the cultural landscape. Financially, however, the shepherds are in a bad way – at least that’s what de Vries describes: high workload, a lot of responsibility, increasing bureaucracy and always money worries. Young talent is also lacking. "I just have to break my foot, then I wouldn’t find anyone to take care of my girls."

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He is also burdened by the fact that 60 percent of his income is based on "insanely shaky foundations". By this he means the landscape maintenance funds from the agricultural budget. These are not sufficient and are subject to a complicated set of bureaucratic rules that are difficult for shepherds to comply with. Only 40 percent of de Vries’ income comes from the sale of lamb.

The grazing animal premium, on the other hand, would be a secure additional source of income. 38 euros is demanded by the Federal Association of Professional Shepherds per mother animal. This would not solve all the problems of the shepherds, but would be above all a "signal of hope to the farms," says Andreas Schenk of the Federal Association.

If there are no more shepherds, there will be consequences: Biodiversity would decline without the sheep. Only through the selective feeding of the sheep can the typical character of the Swabian Alb with its juniper heaths, the dike landscape in the north or the Luneburg Heath be preserved.

The introduction of the grazing animal premium is not planned, says the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture when asked: "Coupled direct payments are contrary to the intended market orientation of agriculture and lead to distortions of competition between member states." Since 2005, sheep farmers in Germany have received subsidies only for the area grazed. The conflict is clear: on the one hand, market-oriented agriculture; on the other, agricultural animal husbandry that is in harmony with the cultural landscape.

The "insular German special position" criticizes Schenk of the Federal association of professional shepherds. They want to demonstrate for a grazing animal premium on March 13 in Berlin. They want to set an example before the conference of agriculture ministers, which will take place in April.

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