In my first week in Athens I took a break from visiting the museums and sights, and set about the task that brought me to Greece - painting the country's traditional livestock.
I set off with members of Amalthia, the Greek livestock preservation society, to the Levadia region, a couple of hours north of Athens. It was a wet, rainy day, that only got more sodden as the hours passed - but I loved every minute of it.
From the highway that snakes up the east coast of Greece we began turning off onto ever smaller roads, through cultivated plains surrounded by mountains, and past ragged cliffs and ancient quarries. We passed very few animals, '...most spend winter indoors' it was explained to me, and a number of the cliffs had natural and man-made caves that were traditional quarters for livestock at this time of year.
We eventually parked by a tree-lined canal bisecting fields of mostly grain and corn. Cotton is an enormously important crop in this part of Greece as well, and in fact, though the harvest was months ago, little clumps and whisps of the familiar, white fluffy tufts were caught in branches, window sills, car windscreens and road signage across the plain.
We approached one of the very few buildings in the area, a lovely stone structure perhaps a hundred feet long, with a tiled roof. This had originally been a toll collection office in the mid-19th century, strategically placed by a bridge over the canal to collect tariffs from passing carriages. Today it is a barn, divided-up inside into one large pen for about thirty rams, and another for a similar number of ewes and their lambs.
Included here was some of the rarest breeds of Greek sheep, the Argos, with as few as 100-150 alive today, spread over 4-5 herds in southern Greece. Like most Greek sheep and goat breeds the Argos is a dual-purpose animal, bred for milk and meat, and my first sight of them was exhilarating - after 18 months planning this project from Australia.
At this time of year their coarse, white wool - ideal for rug production - is thick and falls straight across their long bodies, while their legs remain lightly covered. They have very attractive, fine heads, often totally black, but some with patches of white or the reverse combination. Their most distinctive feature is ‘fat’ tails - a common feature of African sheep, but the Argos is the only Greek breed of this variety, and pointing to their ancient origins; their ancestors brought over by traders from the Middle East.
For the purposes of conservation, it is not ideal for this rare Greek breed to be in mixed flocks as was the case here(Karagouniko and Chios sheep also), but these farmers have few resources - not only in post-crisis Greece, but through history, and convenience overcomes cross-breeding concerns in most cases. Nevertheless, there are numerous Argos lambs here in this barn - identified predominantly by these 'fat' tails.
There was no time to sketch unfortunately, but I'll be back to visit this flock, and in warmer weather.
Three farms followed that afternoon, including my first look(and sketch) of the native pony of Crete, the Messara, and the distinctive 'mascot' of Amalthia - the remarkably twisted horned Ulokerakini goat. The latter are spectacular creatures, which contain a gene that twists their long horns into three distinctive formations - the most unique of which being a wide circular curve that appears to frame the head.
In three seperate herds I saw perhaps a dozen of this variety, as well as a most impressive buck whose thick horns are coiled tightly, close to his head, another variation of the Ulokerakini. Some quick pencil sketches were dashed-off, and many photographs taken of these wonderful animals over the course of the afternoon.
As the light dimmed towards dusk I took in the wonderful view - a hillside in Southern Greece, goats sheltered under a fig tree, watching my every move as I navigated their pen, and beyond a sprawling hilly landscape of receding olive groves. My Origins project was underway.
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