The charming city of Ferrara is known as the ‘City of Bicycles’, and its eco-friendly mission doesn’t stop there. Instead of using lawnmowers, the city council have decided to employ 600 sheep (and a couple of goats), owned by shepherd Massimo Freddi from Brescia, to cut the grassy areas surrounding the city walls. Their transhumance began last September, when they travelled from the mountain of Val Trompia towards Lake Garda and reached the banks of the river Po in November. The flock is gradually moving around the green areas surrounding the city, contained in each section by a make-shift fence. You can, of course, assist the grass cutting yourself by picking grass from outside the fence to feed to the sheep. Indeed, tourists are flocking (sorry) to see the bucolic phenomenon, equipped with cameras and smart phones. The sheep also have an educational role, as schools will be taking class trips to visit them. As newspaper ‘La Nuova Ferrara’ describes, children will learn about the ‘secrets of a craft that is not commonly found in big or small cities’.
Furthermore, this is not simply a dreamy recreation of historic times. As the shepherd, Freddi, proudly proclaims, ‘I am actually a social entrepreneur combining new technology with tradition, and showing how proper integration with the territory can give unexpected results and create zero environmental impact: each sheep in my flock has a microchip that allows vets to follow our movements at any time. They are carefully controlled in order to prevent diseases from spreading within the group and in the areas that we cross’. Perhaps not such a whimsical idea after all, but the future of a world where human needs are solved by reintegration with nature.
This rustic idyll is intended to remain in Ferrara until the end of May, but of course being Italy there have been complications. I am avidly following the dramatic events like a soap opera. However, to make things yet more twisted, the newspapers have reported a different story from that which really happened (as told by the shepherd). As the newspapers relate, the neighbouring municipality of Bondeno were outraged that the flock crossed into their territory without all animals having had a test for brucellosis. The flock originates from the region of Lombardia while Ferrara and Bondeno are part of Emilia-Romagna, and the two regions have different sanitary laws. As such the offending sheep entered into the new territory without the necessary sanitary authorisation. Bondeno, therefore, levied a shocking 12,000 euro sanction for the ovine crime. Freddi is reported to have retaliated, ‘the sheep will pay the fine, I don’t have the money’. (Quotations from: http://lanuovaferrara.gelocal.it/ferrara/cronaca/2016/03/22/news/un-gregge-di-pecore-diventa-tosaerba-per-il-sottomura-1.13172123)
However, the reality is in fact, as might be expected, a matter of politics. I went to Ferrara to talk to Freddi about his headline causing flock, and learnt that Bondeno is actually the victim in this story. Freddi is quite an imposing character, tall, lean and tanned, striding up and down the temporary fence and occasionally aiming a forceful kick at sheep straining to eat the grass outside the fence. Leaning against the fence he launched into a tirade about Italian politics. As he tells it, he was merely a pawn in a larger political game between the regional (larger) authorities of Emilia-Romagna and the smaller municipality of Bondeno. In general Emilia-Romagna, politically, leans heavily to the left while Bondeno is a rather isolated area of right wingers. As such, left-wing authorities in Bologna (Freddi did not specify who) used the sheep episode to play a nasty political trick. It seems Bologna sent a couple of vets to Bondeno coinciding with the arrival of Freddi’s flock. As was predictable, newspapers and the public jumped to the conclusion that Bondeno had requested the veterinary checks. Therefore when Bologna levied the extortionate fine, no one hesitated to assume it was Bondeno who was trying to ruin the fun.
No doubt more complications will arise before the month is up, but for the moment Freddi says, ‘the fine is not important, I don’t have to pay’. He seems eager to escape the political games and travel instead to the mountains.
For the meantime the sheep are leisurely grazing near the walls, seemingly unaware of the drama they have caused. Hopefully they will be allowed to remain there in peace, providing Ferrara with eco-gardeners and a new tourist attraction.