Swans Commentary » swans.com July 13, 2009  



Transhumance And The Estive: A Revival Of Pastoralism


by Graham Lea





(Swans - July 13, 2009)   Transhumance -- moving animals to the estive (high summer pasture) -- is one of the plus anciennes activités de l'humanité, our local newspaper La Dépêche du Midi observed. It is an aspect of pastoralism that is enjoying a renaissance in la France profonde. (1) (2) Transhumance has a double purpose: it makes it possible to cut the hay in the lower pasture for winter use, and enables the éleveurs to have more animals.

In late May or during June, after the snow has retreated and the grass is growing, and again in September and October, the pâtres move animals above the tree line to the estive. Tens of thousands of ovins (sheep, at about 3.5 kph) and thousands of bovins (mostly cows, at about 6 kph) are led to the estive, along with smaller numbers of caprines (goats) and mérens (small black Ariègeois horses, which were drawn on the walls of the Grotte de Niaux by Upper-Paleolithic Magdalenian man some 14,000 years ago). The estive may reach 3000 metres, but is commonly nearer 1500 metres, with alpine and sub-alpine vegetation. The forest below provides sustainable wood for heating in winter, and is used as primary fuel by most people in our commune. Finally, the valleys with abundant rivers, streams, and water meadows provide hay and grazing. The ascent to the estive takes place over several days, with appropriate bed-and-breakfast arrangements being made for the animals. Roads may be closed to motor transport during the final stages to the estive, apart from a vehicle to assist any distressed animal. The troupeaux travel together, but can be separated on descent from the estive because the ovins are painted with pégadès, (3) with numbered ear clips for bovins -- but not branding.

The owners of the animals are often referred to as the éleveurs, with those who accompany them to the estive having the métier de pâtre de haute montagne -- or more specifically shepherd or cowman, berger (bergère) or vacher (vachère). The pâtres often wear the traditional béret pyrénéen, and may have an umbrella protruding from their sac de montagne, which is strange to the British eye since traditionally only the clergy use umbrellas in the countryside. Although the pâtres now live in cabanes pastorales modernes et bien équipées, there are many ancient small, round, dry-stone huts called orris (a Catalan word), built by hand without mortar and sometimes topped with slate or tree branches, or grassed over. Some were used to store cheese. An abri is a shelter for sick or expectant animals, with an enclosure for protective purposes.

Estives are rather like summer sex camps for the animals, a splendid opportunity for animal bonding. Some estives have natural barriers, and others old dry stone walls. Barbed wire is not used. Many cows have muted bells round their necks. These serve to help a calf keep with its mother, assuming the calf has a good sense of pitch. They also help the pâtres and dogs to find the animals when low clouds reduce visibility. The bells are also a source of intense pride, and are intended to indicate the wealth of the éleveur, since they are quite expensive. Perhaps the most famous fabrique is that of the Devouassoud family of Chamonix, who since 1829 have been making them with a process involving 51 steps. They are of riveted stainless steel, with a coating of brass and copper before being heated to 1080 degrees C to form an alloy. The wedge-shaped and more mellifluous sonnettes may be up to 20 cm along the wider side, with many local names for them being used including clarines, s'nailles, sommailles, potets, and carons in the Alpes and the Pyrénées. Les cloches are round and bell-shaped, with a diameter up to 21.5 cm, and are locally called campannes or campaines: they tend to be found more in the Massif Central. (4)

Very large, white, long-haired pastoral dogs (the local breed is chiens de montagne des Pyrénées, known as the patou, or pastre in vieux français) are used as guard dogs. The patou is brought up to live with the sheep, and acts as their defender, placing himself between the intruder and the flock, barking a warning, but defending only if necessary and then formidably. They do not accept that the pâtre is their master -- they see themselves as being in charge, protecting him as well. Other dogs, often border collies, fulfill the traditional role of doing the running around to gather the animals. In the Alpes and the Drôme, there are increasing numbers of wolves that have crossed the border from Italy, while in the Massif Central they are taking up residence again after a 90-year interval -- they were eradicated by shooting in the 1920s. Bears have been reintroduced in the Pyrénées in recent years, while in the Jura, there are lynxes.

The mountains became rapidly depopulated from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1930s, when the decline slowed. From around 2000, the areas have come alive again, with multiple uses such as increased traditional pastoralism and forestry, more residents and restored résidences secondaires, walkers, fishermen, hunters, paragliders, and VTTistes (vélo tout terrain -- mountain bikers). At the same time, it is sad to contemplate that as a result of the European Union Common Agricultural Policy (compounded by French succession law), subsidies have increasingly reduced much farming in France to élevage industriel -- factory farming -- rather than pastoralisme. Fortunately the chemins de la transhumance are becoming re-established, and are part of le patrimoine. It is very pleasant to find completely open national borders in the mountains, with no security fences. Relations between France and Spain at the border are very good indeed, and do not mirror the ebb and flow of political relationships based on outmoded left-right notions between Paris and Madrid. In the département of Pyrénées-Orientales, which borders the Med and is frequently referred to as North Catalonia, 40% of people are able to speak Catalan, with some 60% understanding it. From the 9th century to the 17th century, the region was mostly ruled from Spain. During the Spanish Civil War days, many Spaniards fleeing from Franco, and especially orphaned children, were given refuge across the border. Just a few years later, many fled from the Nazis across the Pyrénées along the chemins de la liberté, including allied airmen, escaped prisoners of war, Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals. They were helped by the brave résistance, many of whom were shot by the Nazis. It was no mean feat to make the crossing, since the mountain passes are mostly around 2,500 metres, and the very few roads had to be avoided. (5)

Since those years of terror, Occitans from France have met Spanish catalans at the border for a pujada celebration. From the end of the narrow road, it is now a four-hour rough walk on the French side, with the track going up 1200 metres. Several hundred people make the ascent to the Port de Salau each August, sharing a picnic lunch, exchanging presents, making music, and dancing. There is much singing of rondes, with chants d'adieu and hymnes on departure. A particular purpose is the défense des langues et cultures communes. It is a rencontre pour l'amitié et la convivialité entre les peuples frontaliers -- a border skirmish of the best kind, without wire, guns, or guard towers -- merely friendship and camaraderie. How different from contentious fenced borders, such as that between Mexico and the U.S. (or for that matter between Morocco and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, or of course between Israel and Palestine). It is interesting to contemplate the reasons for guarded borders.

It takes considerable administrative organisation to arrange the sharing of estives and the maintenance of simple dwellings for the pâtres, who mostly work for five months and often act as éleveurs in the winter. All seems to be carried out in a friendly fashion, however, with much good will -- although there are many organisations at different levels, and having different terms of reference. There is some subsidy from regional, national, and European funding levels, but the amounts are relatively small.

The practice of transhumance has revived in the last ten years, accompanied by a new cultural phenomenon of people: les fêtes de la transhumance. Hundreds of people, nearly all local, accompany the troupeaux. The distance to be walked up and down may be 15 km or more, along a narrow road or track that may rise a thousand metres. A picnic is taken, although in some cases there is a pre-bookable grillade champêtre with five courses, sous chapiteau (a canvas awning) for perhaps five hundred people. Last summer, one transhumance had to be postponed and the lunch cancelled because the snow persisted in late June. With wine ad libitum, and music by an accordéon and hautbois (oboe), as well as the popular brass and percussion band Les Gais Rimontais, it does not take long before favourite local songs are sung enthusiastically in the patois. There are many bons moments de convivialité.

There may be a demonstrations of sheep shearing -- gently done with hand cutters, not a brutal electric machine. The quality of the result is admired, not the speed with which it is undertaken. There is no evident stress for the sheep, who close their eyes contentedly when stroked by children. A botanist is also on hand to give guidance about the identification of alpine flowers. There are speeches and recognition of the work done by the ambassadeurs de pastoralisme.

Bon estive! was the greeting of the day.




1.  www.pays-couserans.fr/PHOTOTEQUE.html  (back)

2.  "Transhumance en Pays Massatois, à la rencontre des éleveurs" [with a four-minute video]. Ariège News, 4 June 2008.  (back)

3.  Pégadès: from Occitan and denoting the unique symbol identifying the proprietor of an animal.  (back)

4.  www.sonnettesdevouassoud.com  (back)

5.  Scott Goodall: The freedom trail. Inchmere, 2005 [also in French: Le chemin de la liberté.]  (back)


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About the Author

Graham Lea is a British writer and journalist, inter alia for the BBC and The Register, where he covered the Microsoft antitrust case. For many years he was a geologist. Apart from London, he has lived in Canada, the USA, and the Netherlands before settling in la France profonde with his Dutch wife. Lea's work for Swans brings another bit of international flair to the coin français.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/glea04.html
Published July 13, 2009