Sunday, September 12, 2010
Now here is a word not found in most people's vocabulary: transhumance. It means the seasonal movement of people with their livestock. A historical practice in many places, it still occurs annually in the Pyrenees Mountains. Shepherds bring their animals, most often sheep but also cows and horses, into the high mountain pastures in the spring. There, the animals roam freely and munch all summer long on fresh fields of grass and alpine flowers. The shepherd usually stays with them, residing in a very rustic hut where he makes cheese from the collected milk. This summer cheese is coveted because the milk produced while the animals feed on the high altitude grass and flowers has a superior taste to that produced from a diet of hay. In the fall the shepherd and his flock return to civilization and the farm for the winter.
This ancient practice has been modernized a bit, and the majority of the animals are transported by truck into the mountains, and back down again. But in our region, there is a shepherd that still makes the trek on foot. He, his herding dogs, donkey, and flock of sheep make the 300 km trip between mountain pasture and farm...on foot! Because this traditional practice is a rarity, the trip has become a bit of a celebration. The shepherd and his crew end each day in a different village that celebrates his arrival with a bit of a party: kids' games, and the French version of a BBQ. The animals spend the night in a village field, and rest up for the next leg of the journey.
On Friday we attended this celebration in a neighbouring village. We met the group on the outskirts of the village, and stood aside as the sheep streamed by us. Then we walked behind the flock as it entered the village and their rest stop for the night. They use the regular roads, which makes things interesting when cars meet the traveling group! There is no warning truck signaling their arrival, just one dog at the front of the pack, followed closely by the shepherd. It was quite a sight! And as you can see from the photos, the shepherd certainly looks like someone that spent the entire summer in a mountain hut!