Phobjilkha sheep conservation and sustainable utilization is challenging
S heep Conservation and Sustainable Utilization (Samdrup Phuentsho Lhug Sochong Tshogpa) in Phobjikha community was initiated to preserve and sustain the disappearing sheep rearing culture.
The people of Phobjikha rear sheep mainly to produce wool for weaving local products like gho, kira, blanket, bedsheets and charkap (raincoat) for their own use.
The native Bhutanese sheep population is classified into two distinct breeds, Jakar-Sakteng sheep and Sepsu sheep. Rearing Jakar-Sakteng sheep was once a common practice in most villages in Bumthang, Trongsa, Thimphu and Wangdue.
However, with modernization, sheep rearing is no longer a common practice in the community. The utility and population of sheep are declining.
The High Altitude Northern Areas (HANAs) project under Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable use in HANAs of Bhutan was effective from January 2015 to 2017 and is handled by NBC for support of highland communities at Phobjikha, Chhumig, Dhur and National Sheep Breeding farm, particularly to revive Jakar sheep to an optimum population size.
The rearing of sheep, however, is not without challenges in the community. Some of the challenges include increased wildlife predations and dog attacks on sheep.
Phobjikha is a beautiful valley without direct road connectivity to any other areas. The former Gup of Phobji Gewog, Jamtsho, said most of the people bring their animals to
Phobjikha for tshethar to save their lives, adding that animals like dogs are posing a risk to the community.
Sheep have been killed and injured in the dog attack. Ap Sangay, 57, rears 59 sheep. “I have lost 15 sheep and two have been injured by a dog attack in the past three years,” he said, adding that he felt like crying when he saw the pile of dead animals.
Many dogs walk near sheep and they can suddenly turn into hunters the sheep run. No owner of the dogs can be held accountable for this predation because the dogs have no owners, he said.
It is highlighting the detrimental impact dog attacks can have on sheep farmers’ livelihoods, both financially and emotionally.
He said he did not go sheepherding after many of his sheep were killed by dogs. “I am sending my wife and daughters to look after the sheep since I can’t run after the dogs if it happens again,” he said, adding that he can’t bear the pain of seeing the animals being killed.
Aum Kumbu Dem, another member, said many of the people have sold their sheep. “It is difficult for smaller families as we have to engage in agricultural work,” she said
She also said she likes to rear large population of sheep if there is no dog. The population of dos has been increasing in the last few years. “There was no dog in the village, even a pet dog. However, with the increasing number of dogs around, I face a lot of difficulty in rearing sheep,”she said.
Phub Lham sold most of her sheep to the Jakar sheep conservation and sustainable utilization since she doesn’t have anyone to rear them.
However, with the establishment of the new project, any member is not allowed to sell the sheep.
A sheep herder, Angay Passang Gyem, 76, said in the past, they didn’t have to look after sheep. “We would release sheep in the morning and they would be back home by evening,” she said. “Now I have to look after them every day to protect from dog attacks.”
Besides, the bear is also a big challenge during the summer. Former Gup said bears break the windows or doors of the sheep pens, however strong they are, to attack the sheep.
The other objective of the project is focused on encouraging continuing sheep rearing in the community. The population of the sheep has been declining because of difficulties in rearing.
The sheep, many of them pregnant, had been herded into a tight group against a wood fence where they can save the sheep easily from attack by dogs and bears.
To prevent attacks by dogs on sheep, Passang Tobgay, 29, the chairperson of the sheep association, expects the government to provide the strong fencing.
“Government has been supporting so far however, we would appreciate if it could supply us fencing,”he said. “I have no doubt in increasing the population of sheep if there are no dogs.”
Being the chairperson, he is responsible for conducting the meetings at least twice a year. He is a representative and should contact all the relevant agencies for necessary actions.
It is an increasing problem across the village. Sadly this is all too common during the lambing season.
However, Sonam Tamang, Principal Biodiversity Officer of National Biodiversity Centre in Serbithang said there are no solutions since the challenge was with dogs and wildlife attack. “We informed individuals to manage in rearing the sheep to protect from such case,” He said.
The major objective is to preserve the Bhutanese culture by producing wool products. Sheep wool is the most widely used animal fiber, and is usually harvested by shearing in the olden days.
Phobjikha is a cold place where it snows during the winter. In the olden days villagers were mostly associated with sheep production to keep them warm and it was part of their culture.
Aum Dema said mostly women used to wear thick kira produced by wool during winter and after the birth. “Phobjikha is cold place where we have to protect ourselves from cold weather,” she said, adding that the practice of wearing of thick clothes after the birth is still being practiced in the village.
Many of the families own kira and gho, blanket and bed cover produced from sheep wool in the house. They rarely use the wool production since the cloths can be purchased at the cheapest rate from the neighboring countries. “We sell the wool products to tourist and it is more expensive than other handmade products,” Dema said.
Sheep continue to be important for wool production today, and male sheep are also occasionally raised for local sacrificial offerings.
Some of the people traditionally sacrifice sheep for local deities. The culture has been practiced for hundreds of year. The community raises a white male sheep to offer to the local deity.
Local people said they can’t avoid the offering and they have to continue it since the deity is very sensitive.
NBC starts with an objective for niche wool product development and diversify products from Jakar sheep to enhance income of the communities.
Wool can be collected twice in a year to produce traditional clothes.
The generated income can be used for the purpose of purchasing equipment, in increasing the population of sheep and pasture-land, agricultural development, sickness and education purpose.
The wool can be collected twice in a year and the farmers’ group can be allowed to divide the profit if the income exceeds 0.3 million.
The income generated can be saved 30 percent for wildlife predation, 10 percent for administration, 15 percent for training field, 15 percent for life insurance and 30 percent for emergency.
Community consultative meeting and information on baseline data of Jakar sheep was conducted by NBC to assess and document existing status at the start of the project on sheep population, wool product processing, marketing, constraints in sheep farming and define supportive measure required for conservation and enhancing income generation from Jakar sheep.
The technology support like labor saving device was identified as important for efficient quality and faster wool shearing/ processing and spinning. Therefore, equipments were supplied by NBC to the groups and trained on sheep shearing and use of wool carding and spinning equipments at Phobjikha.
Eight wool drum carder, eight wool spinning wheel and 22 sheep shear blade equipment each costing of Nu.74, 580, Nu.40, 838 and Nu.1, 890 respectively.
The equipment should be used for sheep shearing and wool processing and spinning within farmers’ group only.
A three-day farmers’ training was conducted by NBC during February 2016 at Phobjikha to mobilize sheep rearing farmers on Jakar sheep group formation and drafting of by-laws.
The Dzongkhag administration, Wangduephodrang, implemented an act for the sheep conservation and sustainable utilization.
The damage and loss should be sole responsible of the group. Passang Tobgay said the farmers group agree and understand that if the equipment items are stolen, misplaced, destroyed, etc. are responsible and will be relocated by the group.
“Maintaining the equipment in working conditions and will be the poverty of the group,” he said.
Currently there are 34 registered members in the sheep conservation and sustainable utilization. To be a member, a farmer should have at least a minimum of 15 sheep.
The Phobji Gewog is home to 380 households and approximately 5,800 people who mostly depend on agriculture and livestock.
Phobjikha is one of the largest and populated Gewogs under Wangdue Dzongkhag and people are largely dependent on agriculture and domestic animals. Today Phobjikha is known only for its blacknecked crane and, to a lesser extent, its potatoes.
The National Biodiversity Centre (NBC), Serbithang, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests initiated conservation of Phobjikha sheep in collaboration with Wangdue Dzongkhag administration on 14 February2016.
The financial support for maintenance of Jakar sheep nucleus herd at sheep farm and supply of breeding rams and pasture development for sheep rearing farmers has been provided.
(This article is reported with support from DoIM)