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Sheep Walking Trails in the Pyrenees

Frédéric Lagrange Roger "Patatus" Mahenc

Photo: Roger “Patatus” Mahenc

At seven o’clock on a Saturday morning in early June, I’ve joined a gathering crowd in a field outside Sentein, in the French Pyrenees. The day is brilliant—sunny and sweater-cold. Wisps of mist skirt across the mountains. The sun lights up the fields of wheat. In this sleepy corner of the Couserans, I’m about to partake in one of the oldest pastoral traditions: the annual walking of the herds up to their summer mountain pastures—the transhumance. I’ve come to the Pyrenees to walk with sheep.

The crowd is a mixed lot, mostly locals and weekenders from Toulouse, two hours away. I’ve driven the 45 minutes from the village of St.-Girons, where I’m staying in the “Alexandre Dumas” room at the restored 19th-century Château de Beauregard. There are shepherds scarfing down a quick breakfast of sausage, bread, and wine; and a handful of Parisian tourists with dogs on leashes (which won’t be allowed to tag along). Everyone has brought hiking boots and day packs, ski poles and walking staffs and raincoats—just in case. This morning we’ll accompany the herdsmen and their sheep in multiple parades up into the mountains. It’s part of the Ariège region’s effort to make its local pastoral tradition a tourist attraction. Imagine a kinder, gentler running of the bulls. Not in a city, but against the beautiful backdrop of the Midi-Pyrénées.

The Biros Valley backs up against the frontier with Spain. Normally it sees little traffic, even in high summer. But this morning, at the point of departure, Renaults line the road and the air quakes with the bleating of sheep. Sheep are everywhere—in makeshift paddocks and enclosures—canvas-colored Tarasconnais sheep, some 3,000 strong. Their nervous baa’s, surprisingly human, sound like a men’s baritone choir, painfully out of tune.

By eight a.m., the last scarf of mist lifts from the mountains and the view up the Biros turns sublime: the serrated snowy peaks of high, jagged Mount Crabère loom above the valley floor. A faint cheer issues from the crowd and the first flock starts marching up the road. Cameras swing. Sheep bells clang. Three shepherds lead the flock with herding sticks and black berets just behind a pair of Great Pyrenees herding dogs—le patou—scouting the ground ahead. The sheep are trotting at a fast clip, six abreast, restive, noisy, a long white river with no end in sight. They have all been recently shorn and so look naked and harried—somewhat like fugitives, well…on the lam. Fast on their heels, a few hundred hikers keep swift pace with the flock. A border collie weaves in and out of legs, nipping at any sheep who’ve lagged behind. I’m tempted to join the flow; it’s almost impossible to resist. But I’m waiting for a larger flock yet to come, the fourth in line this morning. They’re going to a mountain pasture—an estive—called Bentaillou, “the place where the wind blows.” I like the sound of the estive. It’s a five-hour hike straight up.

Transhumance might very well be the earliest form of summer travel. It has taken place as long as people have kept domesticated animals. In late May or early June you leave the hot dry plains behind you and bring your cattle or sheep, goats or horses, up to the highlands where there’s plenty of good grazing. You return home in fall when the grass grows in the lowlands again. These local migrations happen all over Europe: in the Alps, the Apennines, in Corsica, Switzerland, and Spain. In the German-speaking Alps it’s called the Alpaufzug. In Italy, it’s la transumanza. In Spain la transhumancia lasts for weeks, with Merino sheep driven along ancient trails north to south and east to west. In some regions, there’s invariably a festival with food and wine, music and dancers, and photo ops, the fêtes de la transhumance held throughout Europe—even in large cities like Madrid, where the paso de las ovejas (passing of the sheep) occurs in the capital, from north to south, each fall.

Perhaps it was Heidi or The Sound of Music or herding my own goats in Vermont that made me want to participate in a real transhumance. The problem was finding a willing shepherd (or goatherd) who’d let me tag along. Here in Ariège, visitors can join 10 different day hikes that accompany the animals up into the mountains. You can walk with a hundred native black Merens horses, or hundreds of Gascon cows, or a thousand Tarasconnais or Castillonnais sheep. You can pay for a picnic or a barbecue dinner afterward, or hire a donkey to carry your child. Roger Mahenc, a shepherd from Sentein who is bringing his flock up to an estive this morning, tells me that “in the past the transhumance was a family outing with a group of friends. Now there are all these people who want to learn about it. And it’s important to educate the public, to show them that we aren’t just some spectacle, but are actually playing out an age-old cultural practice.”

In many parts of Europe, the transhumance faded in the middle of the last century. Cows and sheep and goats were packed on lorries and shipped to better pastures or left in the lowlands on large commercial feedlots. But now a resurgence is under way throughout Europe, led by Slow Food activists and ecologists and livestock breeders, who want to reclaim the “patrimony” of the millennia-old tradition. As Spanish naturalist and Slow Food advocate Jesús Garzón explains: “Slow Food’s idea is to restore a calm life—people interpret it as the opposite of fast food, but really it’s a life philosophy: to live calmly, talk with people in the country, eat well. That’s precisely what the transhumance is about: We go slowly—nine miles a day— getting to know the towns, the farmers. We produce high-quality food: lamb, beef, goat. Transhumance also helps the soil by infusing it with good manure. The practice is fundamental to the future of sustainable agriculture.”

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