Our Young Herders programme, ‘Kharaatsai’ meaning Young Swallows, gives students a deeper understanding of their natural environment through classes on biodiversity, weather patterns, soil health and more. Participants learn about sustainability through trips to meteorological stations, field research on insects and botanicals, and in-depth training modules on land restoration.
The Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) has run training programmes for young Mongolian herders since 2015. In 2019, Johnstons of Elgin piloted the Kharaatsai course, combining modern sustainability theories with traditional skills passed down through generations of nomadic culture. A total of 1257 students have participated in the course since its establishment.
At the heart of the Kharaatsai programme is the long-standing Mongolian belief that it is our duty to love nature. A diverse range of animals, from marmosets and gazelles to boars and foxes, live harmoniously in the steppes of Mongolia. Young herders learn the importance of protecting these animals along with the water, plants and grasses.
In 2021, our Young Herders course expanded into web-based learning, making participation accessible for young people in rural and urban environments and other countries. The online programme includes lessons and progress updates, using social media platforms for communication. The Kharaatsai community addresses environmental issues by organising small projects, sharing knowledge online and challenging each other with short videos of meaningful acts.
The 2023 SFA Mongolia Conference brought together more than 150 attendees, including delegates from 57 herder organisations of 41 soums covering 14 provinces of Mongolia, as well as Cashmere processors, researchers, academics, non-governmental organisations and officials from the Mongolian government.
The Herder Sustainability Awards ceremony took place during the conference, presenting in six main categories:
Four further awards, sponsored by Johnstons of Elgin, were presented to the Best Young Herders. The winners were young guardians of their land and nomadic pastoral lifestyle, inheriting their culture from their parents. They each expressed how much the award means and motivates them to achieve more. The winners were:
‘Shine Burgaltai’ Cooperative, Khotont Soum, Arkhangai Province
‘Ösökh Badral’ Cooperative, Tsenkher Soum, Arkhangai Province.
‘Ulzyn Arvin Süreg’ Cooperative, Bayan-Uul Soum, Dornod Province.
‘Zalaa Shine Ergelt’ Cooperative, Shinejinst Soum, Bayankhongor Province.
The programme was named Kharaatsai, or Swallow, as Mongolian cultural views the bird as a protector of our planet. In Mongolian folklore, the legend of Erkhii Mergen sees a heroic songbird save the earth from destruction at the hands of humankind.
The Legend of Erkhii Mergen, the Archer.
Once, long ago, seven suns appeared in the sky. The heat of so many fiery suns was so intense that the earth below began to burn. A terrible drought spread over the land. Streams and rivers dried up, and all the plants and trees began to wilt and die. The people of the earth and every living thing suffered terribly from the intolerable heat. Finally, both man and beast also began to die.
During these terrible times, there lived a young man named Erkhii Mergen, who was famous as the best archer in the world. Erkhii Mergen could shoot an arrow better than anyone, and he always hit his target. The suffering people came in droves to Erkhii Mergen, begging him, 'Erkhii Mergen, help us! Use your skill to shoot down the seven suns, or everything in this world will surely perish!'
A BOASTFUL PROMISE
Erkhii Mergen was proud of his ability, strong thumbs, and immense strength. He was young and fierce and felt ready to take on any foe. In his pride, Erkhii Mergen said to the people, 'Not only will I shoot down the seven suns, but I promise to use only seven arrows to accomplish the deed. If I should fail, I swear to you all that I will cut off my thumbs! I will cease to be a man and will become an animal, an animal that never drinks pure water, that eats only last year's dry grass, and that lives forever in one of the earth's dark holes!'
The people were grateful to Erkhii Mergen but wondered at his boundless confidence. When the suns rose in the east the next morning and began tormenting the earth below, Erkhii Mergen set out to find a spot to do battle. From the summit of a high hill, as the suns passed over his head one by one, the fearless archer drew back his powerful bow, aimed his arrows and let them fly. The twang of Erkhii Mergen's bowstring vibrated over the land as the archer destroyed six of the seven scorching suns with six sharp arrows.
Now taking aim at his final target, Erkhii Mergen let go of the seventh and last arrow. At that very moment, a swallow crossed the arrow's path. The arrow ripped the bird's tail, forking it as it remains today. Missing its mark, the arrow fell to the earth. Seeing how Erkhii Mergen had destroyed its brothers, the seventh sun quickly disappeared in fright behind a western mountain.
A CHASE FOR HONOUR
Stunned by what had happened, Erkhii Mergen became enraged at the unfortunate swallow and determined to catch and destroy it. Mounting his loyal piebald horse, he commanded it to give chase. The devoted steed told him, 'Master, our honour is at stake. I will chase after that swallow until the sun sets. If my swift legs should not succeed in catching it, then you may cut them off and throw them into the desert, where I shall spend the remainder of my days.'
Erkhii Mergen and his piebald horse thundered across the Mongolian steppe, chasing the swallow for many hours. But no matter how fast it ran, the piebald horse could not capture the bird. Each time the horse got close, the swallow would dart away and avoid being caught, almost as if the bird were mocking the angry horse and its rider.
THE ARCHER’S PROMISE
As the seventh sun began to set and the sky grew red, Erkhii Mergen, now more frustrated than ever, did as the horse demanded, cutting off the animal's forelegs and throwing them into the desert. At that moment, the archer's piebald horse changed into a jerboa, a jumping mouse, and it is for this reason the jerboa's front legs are shorter than its hind legs. Next, Erkhii Mergen kept his boastful but horrible promise to the people. He cut off his thumbs and changed himself from a man into a marmot. He sought out a dark hole deep in the earth and began drinking impure water and eating old grass. If you look at a marmot's claws, you will see that there are four because Erkhii Mergen cut off his own thumbs. In the marmot's body, there is a piece of meat the Mongols call 'man's meat'. This piece was originally Erkhii Mergen's flesh. People ceased eating it out of respect for the archer who saved the world by destroying six scorching suns.
THE SEVENTH SUN
Though the seventh sun still warms the world, it is frightened of Erkhii Mergen. It runs to hide behind the mountains for part of the day, and this is why day and night appear in succession.
Regarding the swallow who got away, its tail is still forked, but when it spies a man riding a horse, it flies to and fro around their heads as if to say, 'You cut my tail, but you can't catch me. Just you try!...'
The Kharaatsai logo features the silhouette of a vertical-flying swallow to illustrate a commitment to sustainability. By her fast and sharp flight, the swallow is also seen as an image of energetic youth in Mongolian culture.