Sacrificed to the Energy Revolution: Biogas Boom Threatens Future of Germany's Shepherds

By Renate Nimtz-Koester

Corn used for biofuel is taking over vast stretches of traditional grazing land in Germany. The change is transforming the landscape, driving shepherds out of business and threatening the dike system crucial for preventing floods.

"I know all my girls," says Jenny Kniestedt, "and when I drive up in my car, they know that mama has arrived."

The 31-year-old Berlin native cares for 350 ewes on a dike where the Löcknitz River flows into the Elbe River, near Dömitz in the northeastern German region of Mecklenburg. Kniestedt, a trained shepherd with short black hair and a tattoo on her upper arm, pushes her charges into a sorting pen, where they'll receive an injection against external parasites in their "wool-covered butt cheeks," followed by the oral administration of a drug against tapeworms.

She walks with her "dike-mowers," Pomeranian and Blackhead Persian sheep, all the way to the neighboring states of Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg. There is plenty to do along the way. She trims their hooves, helps them give birth and holds the animals in place for sheering. "I do everything," says Kniestedt, in a heavy Berlin accent, "and I do it with heart and soul."

Her boss, 48-year-old head shepherd Maik Gersonde, from the nearby town of Schlesin, is glad to have her. "Whatever Jenny does, she gives it 100 percent," he says. Gersonde has also trained and hired another young woman. A shepherd in the nearby town of Preten, in Lower Saxony, also has two shepherdesses working for him. Nowadays, more women than men apply for slots in the three-year training program.

But the growth in female shepherds belies the generally dismal situation for shepherds in Germany. In the last five years, the number of full-time shepherds has declined by a fifth, to a total of 2,000. By keeping the grass dense and compacting the soil, their 2.5 million sheep still protect dikes along the coast and rivers. They also preserve cultural landscapes, like the Lüneburg Heath and the Swabian Jura, from scrub encroachment, and they maintain waysides, open spaces, hillsides and hard-to-reach elevated areas. "But many herds are already gone because the shepherds had to give up," Gersonde says.

Stefan Völl, managing director of the Union of German Sheep Farming Associations, says the profession, one of the oldest in the world, is "on the verge of extinction." The future of shepherds, he says, is being threatened by growing bureaucracy and falling prices for lamb meat and wool. But the biggest culprit is Germany's energy revolution, which is seeing it abandon nuclear energy by 2022 while making a massive push to get a larger percentage of its power from renewable resources, such as natural gas produced from crops.

'An Insatiable Demand for Land'

The biogas boom is transforming meadows, fields and even the most barren pieces of land -- in other words, the places where sheep have always grazed -- into vast stretches of corn. As a result, shepherds, who rarely own land, are having trouble finding pastures to lease. They also have to walk greater distances to find pastures, and their already modest average monthly income of €1,200 ($1,500) is declining even further. "If this continues, the caretakers of the nation's landscapes won't be around much longer."

Attracted by the subsidies provided under Germany's Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), which seemingly makes it possible to rake in money in environmentally correct ways, investors are now offering to lease land from farmers at twice the rate they paid only a few years ago.

In the meadows of the Elbe River Valley, leasing a hectare (2.5 acres) of pastureland costs up to €800 a year. In areas where biogas production is especially concentrated, such as Bavaria, investors have even paid up to €1,000 a hectare, says Günther Czerkus, spokesman of the Committee of Professional Shepherds, who keeps his sheep in the Eifel Mountains of western Germany. "There is an insatiable demand for land," he says.

The EEG subsidies even encourage biogas producers to drive shepherds out of their last refuges, Germany's conservation areas. Producers are paid a higher-than-normal feed-in tariff -- a fixed price for the electricity they feed into the grid --for what they harvest there to compensate for the fact it has a lower energy yield in biogas plants.

Enormous fields of crops slotted for use as renewable energy are now taking over other nature paradises, such as the "Elbe River Landscape," a massive UNESCO biosphere reserve that covers parts of the Elbe River running through five German states.

Companies, such as Ruhe Agrar GmbH near the town of Preten, have established entire agricultural cooperatives. Biogas producer Envitec recently built a 2.6-megawatt plant there. Germany's Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has also approved plans to build an even larger plant in nearby Dersenow, across the border in the stage of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Once the plant is up and running, more than 100,000 metric tons of corn and fermented organic material will be trucked back and forth each year -- right in the middle of the biosphere reserve.

'Golden Steps'

More corn means less grass, and sheep have a hard time digesting what is left over from the corn harvest. "They would get a protein shock," Gersonde says. "We would have to get the sheep used to the corn leftovers first." But even then, the fields would be plowed under after a week and sprayed with liquid manure.

Day after day, in thunderstorms, heavy rains or the hot July sun, Kniestedt keeps moving a few hundred meters along the Löcknitz River. Her female Border Collies are constantly running off to "punish snackers." The herding dogs grab the renegades by the leg without injuring them.

When Gersonde learned his profession, the region was still part of East Germany. "Sheepherding was of a high quality there, and shepherds were respected people," he says. Next week, Gersonde will be wearing "the full uniform," consisting of long, blue felt coat and high boots, at the state sheepherding competition. "People are always happy to see shepherds," he says, "but that doesn't do us any good."

As a precaution, he has purchased 400 hectares of land, both as pasture and to grow organic feed grain for winter feeding. He sells his lamb in Hamburg. "But if I didn't have the dikes," says Gersonde, "nothing would work anymore."

Flood protection, to which his seven herds contribute from April to October, is also an important source of income. The cloven-hoofed sheep compress the soil with their "golden steps." When they graze, their teeth slice through blades of grass just above the roots, causing them to spread out and form dense turf. During dike inspections, the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), police and county engineers monitor the sheep to make sure they are doing their job.

But now the energy revolution is even depriving shepherds of the dikes. In Wesel, near the western city of Duisburg, the local dike-management organization recently started having the city's first two dikes mowed for biogas plants.

But shepherd association spokesman Czerkus believes that people will soon realize how valuable the sheep are. When the heavy mowing machines claw up the turf and tear holes into the surface, he says, it will destroy the dikes. "And then," Czerkus predicts, "Duisburg will be under water."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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