In Suvereto, Val di Cornia, on the coast of Tuscany, two brothers, Andrea and Francesco Deiola uphold an ancient tradition of sheep herding, in order to produce exceptional cheese. It’s a way of farming that has deep connections with our past, with nature and or relationship with the land.
If a cheese embodies terroir - the flora and fauna of a region and the people's intimate relationship with them - then the cheese of the Deiola brothers represents the most natural expression of a landscape that is as impressive for its history and culture as it is for its natural beauty.
The brothers farm sheep here, on their plot of land just outside the small town of Suvereto, opposite the island of Elba. To reach it, you take a dirt trail through olive groves and the deafening chorus of cicale and clouds of dust in the summer heat. There you find the brothers working all day, every day, surrounded by enormous, white dogs that, while beautiful, are menacing to strangers.
The dogs are part of the farm, and defend the sheep ferociously, in the way that the Maremano was bred to do. The threat of wolves is one that has re-emerged in recent times.
“Unfortunately, we have to live with the reality of wolves,” says Francesco. “Even 30 years ago, it wasn’t really an issue.”
“There have always been wild wolves in the area, but the real wild wolf is a solitary animal, they stay away from humans, so you would rarely see any evidence of them, but then the situation with the wild boars happened”.
With the indigenous Tuscan wild boar almost hunted to extinction, authorities looked to repopulate the extensive forested countryside and introduced an eastern European breed. These boar, far bigger, more aggressive and prolific, found a fertile land in which to breed and the population exploded. Hunting boar is a popular sport in Tuscany, but it was insufficient to control the numbers and farmers crops began to suffer.
A 120kg wild boar roaming the countryside can cause a lot of damage, not to mention the physical threat to hikers in the forests, so authorities looked for a way to control the population. The solution they found was to reintroduce the wolf to the ecosystem, and a hybrid wolf-dog animal was released into it.
“Obviously the wolves hunt the easiest prey,” says Francesco. “Instead of hunting the wild boar they began to attack the sheep in the dead of night.”
“A real wolf can produce maybe two pups, maximum three per year, but the wolf-wild dog cross can produce many more. We’ve lost many sheep, there have been various attacks. One time we lost nearly 30 heads of sheep. It’s not just a problem in Tuscany, but in all of Italy.”
The state intervenes to compensate the farmers for the loss of their sheep, but as Andrea said, it’s not about the financial cost.
“We are shepherds, the wellbeing of the flock is our top priority always, so for us it’s a tragedy for this to happen. It frightens all the sheep, it affects the product”.
“If the wolves attack, they’ll kill one or two for food, but they’ll injure many more and they can’t be saved,” says Andrea. “A dog will attack the body of the sheep, the thigh, the stomach, but the wolf will always attack the throat. So an injured sheep can’t be saved.”
So about twenty years ago, Francesco and Andrea began to breed their own sheep dogs to protect the flock. Taking the local Maremano-Abruzzese dog, they crossed it with the Great Pyrenees.
“The Maremano is more territorial, but the Pyrenees is more intelligent so we get the best of both,” says Andrea.
The dogs are natural protectors of sheep, they’ve been bred to do it since ancient times. There’s no particular training: the dogs are raised with the sheep as pups. The sheep become their family and they protect them ferociously. They are not pets, as you find out fairy quickly when you approach the farm.
Pitched against a wolf, there can only be one winner, but with enough dogs around the sheep, they can discourage the wolves from attacking, but the wolves are always circling, waiting for the right moment to strike.
For the Deiola brothers, it’s all just part of how they raise their sheep and make their cheese. To produce the most natural and excellent product in this part of the world, they just have to contend with the wolves. They make 12 different types of sheep’s cheese, from fresh to aged, and the product is exceptional, a source of great pride for the brothers.
“It is a way of life for us,” says Andrea. “We are educated men, who’ve had the opportunity to make a lot more money working for bigger food producers, but this is how we want to do it. We are proud to call ourselves ‘pastore'."
In a world of huge dairy conglomerates and increasing mass production, this type of undertaking that safeguards tradition and produces excellent, natural cheeses, is important work. It is a special kind of effort that can’t be done at scale. With wolves and other predators constantly circling, the likes of the Deiola brothers and their dogs are to thank for the preservation of a unique artisanal product.