The end of May, beginning of June, sees the annual transhumance of the sheep up to the higher pastures of the Pyrenees. And as with most old customs in France it’s a bit of an event. The word ‘transhumance’ is the same in English and French, although here it’s pronounced ‘trons-oo- monz ‘and according to my English dictionary is ‘the moving of animals to fresh grazing.’
Anyone can join in, and as long as you don’t get in the way, followers-on are very welcome.
Once you have tracked down your local transhumance (they’re not advertised much, the date and venue is more or less spread by word amongst the community) an early start and a fair amount of stamina is required. A stout stick, walking boots, plenty of bottled water and some sandwiches are advisable too. It will be a long day.
The shepherds gather up their flocks and set off for the foothills, trekking all day until they reach the lush upper pastures. It’s a long journey for the sheep, but these days the event is carefully monitored by vets, and unfit animals are left back in the lower meadows for the summer.
A combined mass evacuation can mean anything up to 15,000 sheep and several hundred followers. Coloured tassels identify the sheep and the initials of the shepherd are stencilled onto the rumps of each animal. Otherwise, how do you recognise your own flock out of all that lot? The flock leaders are fitted with big bells that are removed when they reach the final grazing areas, so as the huge flocks move off, the peaceful valleys echo to tinkling bells and the bleating of several hundred sheep.
Sometimes the muster commences with a mass, and a blessing, a sort of spiritual farewell to the flocks for the summer. Quad bikes and 4x4’s have improved the shepherd’s life, but in the old days, the men would disappear up the mountain with them, to spend the summer in small groups living in isolated, primitive shelters. There are sly winks and nudges when this old custom is mentioned, and one suspects it was all a bit ‘Brokeback Mountain ‘up there with no female company and not a lot to do except make cheese.
Nowadays the milk is brought down from the meadows and produced commercially in high-tech, soulless factories in accordance with EU rules and regulations. Fortunately, for the ‘real’ cheese lover, farmhouse cheeses are still produced locally by tiny producers though, and they are an ever-present sight on the weekly markets. These cheeses are expensive, often over 20€ a kilo, but ‘proper’ cheese production can’t be hurried and the best, such as the famous’ Napoleon’ is matured for 10 months at least. It is a beautiful, hard cheese, similar in texture to Cheddar, but made from 100% sheep’s milk, and it’s almost entirely confined to the markets around the Upper Garonne . It’s a great favourite with the French, who are extremely discerning when it comes to cheeses, and think nothing of spending 15 or 20€ a week on local specialities.
Occasionally, very, very , occasionally the larger cheese stalls will actually have a wheel of Stilton, or Shropshire Blue. When the vendor hears our English accents he, or she, gets very animated and draws our attention to it... as if we hadn’t already noticed it. We smile obligingly and agree that . yes ‘le fromage Anglais ‘ is ‘magnifique’, but, no we really don’t want any today, thank you. Especially at 24€ a kilo. I don’t actually say that of course, although I was brave enough to comment once that the Stilton was a bit ‘tres cher. This was met with …’ Eh oui , mais il est le roi de fromage anglais.’ So it’s obviously worth a king’s ransom to the French. Nice to know we can get something right!
Many thanks to my neighbour John ,who took these photos, and dozens more, when he joined in with a transhumance not far from here last week.