Sheep Walking Trails in the Pyrenees
Every summer in parts of Europe, farmers and ranchers send their animals on an ancient parade called the transhumance. Brad Kessler follows a flock up to greener pastures in the Pyrenees.
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.”
In a few minutes, the large bentaillou flock finally comes loping up the road. I wait for the sheep to pass—all 1,500—a giant ribbon of white wool, then fall in line with the hikers behind. The day has turned spectacular. The Lez River on our right is glass-green, icy, swift. We pass tiny stone hamlets, houses with slate roofs and neat fenced potagers. An old woman waves from her doorstep, lace above the lintel. Then the road narrows and the valley walls press close. We’ve fallen into shadow. The sheep bunch together and slow to a half step, the road now speckled with fresh green dung.
Suddenly I find myself in the middle of the flock, the only human body bobbing on the surface of sheep. I feel myself being swept in a current of creamy wool. The sheep don’t seem to mind, but the shepherd does, and he gently calls for me to get behind the flock. Apologetic—embarrassed—I stand and let the current pass and meekly take my place with the other bipeds.
A shout comes from the file.
Everyone grinds to a halt and looks around. The border collie tunnels importantly through the crowd. People are shouting and pointing toward the river. A sheep has fallen in?A plunge into the icy rapids would mean instant death, and a dozen hikers dash to the embankment to look.
“Là-bas!” someone shouts. I half expect to see a sheep bobbing tragically downriver. But instead he’s stranded on a precipitous bank, bleating, the river 20 feet below. The shepherd calls off his collie; the dog’s excitement will only panic the sheep. The dog obeys and backs off, then stands waiting at a distance. Everyone else on the embankment is waiting too, holding their breath. Will the sheep make it?He is skinny, with first-year horns and long ovine eyelashes. His back leg slips. This could be a real cliff-hanger.
Slowly he struggles to safety and a cheer rises from the crowd and everyone starts walking again. The sheep rejoins the flock. He’ll make it to the estive after all, and survive another summer. But in the fall he’ll probably be sold for meat.
Now, through a narrow rock gap, we climb into the forêt domaniale. The river thunders on our right. Cold funnels down from the upper valleys. Water drips from rocks. Dwarfed ferns and wild butterfly bush line the track—the road is now all scree. Then the gorge opens into a valley painted with alpine flowers. The hikers shed sweaters and coats. We’ve been going at it for a good three hours. The sheep are thirsty and tired from the forced march, and so are we. Some sheep meander down to a braided mountain stream and suck up water.
Soon we reach our lunchtime destination, the Cirque de la Plagne, a natural alpine amphitheater. The view is staggering: four waterfalls plunge at the head of the cirque, small mountain rills gurgle over rocks, boulders lie interspersed among wide bowls of blooming flowers. Everyone spreads out to rest. Plastic cups of Kir Gascon are passed around. Rustic patois music pumps out of portable speakers. A barbecue pit smokes and chuffs with our lunch.
I sit in the cool sunshine with some hikers and riders on horseback. They’ve ridden up this morning on their Merens, who munch grass a few feet away. We eat too: blood sausage, pâté de foie gras, cured ham, cheese, bread. That’s only the beginning. The main course is—what else?—barbecued lamb chops, more tender and succulent than any I’ve tasted before.
We rest. We eat. We drink cups of red vin de pays while the music blares from among the rocks. Some dancers perform in traditional garb and wooden sabots. From where we sit, we can see the sheep. They’ve moved several hundred feet up the cirque, a white mass, bunching and unbunching, with a mind of its own.
Word has come down that there’s still snow on the Bentaillou—“the place where the wind blows.” Shepherd’s huts, called orries, dot the Pyrenees, some of them also used by hikers on the GR10. The crude stone structures are testaments to the hardscrabble life of the transhumant shepherds. Today the owners of the flocks spend little time up on the estives. The few hired herders are given cell phones and paid minimum wage. They are enjoying the party now. Soon, all the tourists will head back down the valley to warm houses or hotels, and the sun will drop in the cirque. That’s when the hard work begins. The long, solitary summer days on the mountain watching sheep and sky.
Getting to the Pyrenees
British Airways and EasyJet fly to Toulouse from London’s Gatwick Airport. From Toulouse, a one- to two-hour drive takes you to St.-Girons or Foix in the region of Ariège.
Where to Stay and Eat
Château de Beauregard
Great Value A redesigned three-star château with a kitchen garden and a restaurant, the Auberge d’Antan, which serves exquisite Gascon cuisine—rich, earthy fare. Ave. de la Résistance, St.-Girons; 33-5/61-66-66-64; chateaubeauregard.net; doubles from $90; dinner for two $47.
Some farmers in Ariège open their houses to visitors during the animal migrations. To learn more, contact the Office de Tourisme de St.-Girons et du Couserans. 33-5/61-96-26-60; transhcouserans.com.
Hikes and Festivals
Ariège The most visitor-friendly of the transhumances available to the public. May 31–June 15; 33-5/61-96-26-60; transhcouserans.com.
Aubrac Although the public cannot join the herdsmen on their walk into the mountains here, there is a send-off festival with folk dancing, a market, and traditional Aubrac specialties. The cows—decorated with holly, bells, and flowers—and shepherds then continue on toward the mountains. May 28, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; L’Association Traditions en Aubrac; 33-5/65-44-21-15; traditionsenaubrac.com.
There’s not yet a tourism infrastructure for hiking with the transhumancia herds in Spain, although Jesús Garzón, of Transhumancia y Naturaleza, says plans are under way. Meanwhile, you can respectfully explore on your own the country’s 77,500 miles of transhumance trails through the often-remote Iberian countryside. Iberia Nature; iberianature.com.