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Walking With Sheep: Following the Trail of an Age-Old Tradition

By: Brad Kessler
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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.

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