How does one know if the summer tourist season in the South Estonian town of Viljandi is already underway? Simply make your way to the city's castle hills (Lossimäed) and see if the resident sheep are already at pasture, ERR reports.
The local government does not raise or tend to the livestock itself, but instead, the slopes of the castle hills, site of the ruins of a former crusader fortress, are set aside for some ovine grass trimming, and are rented for that purpose by the Väike-Arujaagu farm, in nearby Saareküla.
This is the fourth consecutive summer the farm, which also has horses, goats and chickens, has taken its sheep to graze in Viljandi.
Anu Kiik, the Väike-Arujaagu farm's matriarch, said that the set-up with the Viljandi city government was a two-way thing.
Kiik said: "Arujaagu farm is a smallholding in terms of acreage, hence my accepting the offer. It's an extra grazing area for the sheep. We have great cooperation with the city – they want they sheep, I get to use the land."
A flock of 10 head of sheep arrived at the pasture Wednesday to be greeted by no less of a figure than the town's mayor, Madis Timpson, who was joined by children from the nearby Mesimummi kindergarten.
While Viljandi is not a large town, with a little over 17,000 inhabitants, most of the children living there may not get to see sheep every day, or, according to their teacher, Maire, at all.
"Very few children have ever seen a sheep; it's more like they recognize them from the picture. But to see it one the real wild, it's pretty super," teacher Maire said.
Sheep farming in Estonia is not as big as it potentially could be, and certainly not as common as in some other countries such as Wales or New Zealand – though farms other than Väike-Arujaagu do exist, though owners have the added challenge of Estonia's native wolf population to contend with.
Villem Kutti, environmental specialist at the city government, added that while it would in fact work out cheaper to hire weed-whackers or lawnmowers to keep the castle slopes trim, sheep are still preferred as a natural option and as somewhat of a tourist attraction.
Kutti said: "They have somehow become a symbol of the start of summer in Viljandi. This is when the sheep arrive, so the Viljandi summer can also be officially declared open."
One golden rule, Kutti added, is that visitors must not feed the animals. Not only do they have the castle hill to keep them fed and occupied, but also the resources of the nearby farm.
Editor: Marko Tooming, Andrew Whyte