I have learnt more about sheep in the past few days than in the last 40 years. And I knew quite a bit about sheep.
In Béarn, in the south of France, touching the Pyrénees, the livestock is taken down from the summer mountain pastures in September. They’ve been up there all summer to allow the lowland grass to grow and be harvested as hay for the winter. Allocate a lot of time to get anywhere if you are travelling on the mountain roads at this time of year. We passed 5 flocks over a stretch of 20 miles…….
“Why is it always me that gets landed with the big bell?”
One Béarnaise town, Aramits, is famous for two things: the Fete des Bergers (Shepherd’s Festival) which coincides with the sheep descending the mountain, and one of the three Musketeers lived there (not sure if it was Athos, Porthos or Aramis).
You can set off early in the morning, hike up the mountain, and then descend with the sheep. Katie and I did a mini version with a school group; we hiked halfway up and watched from the other side of the valley as the sheep came up and over the adjacent summit, and snaked their way down the hill. We joined the procession as they reached us and then we were escorted by musketeers on horseback into town.
250 sheep work their way down the valley, with shepherds at the front and sheepdogs all around. Shepherds have two types of dogs; trained sheep dogs to round up and control the flock, and “patou” whose job it is to protect the sheep and attack predators (human or animal) if they are a threat. Luckily only the former are out in force at the festival. You can hear the sheep long before you can see them – they wear varying sizes of bell (some huge) to make a “song” as they move down the valley.
We had a look round a shepherd’s hut, brought down from the mountain and reconstructed in the village, stone by stone, in 1999. Sixty new shepherding couples are now being supported to set up again in the hills and to lead a traditional shepherding life. The main difference is that, up until around 1960, a flock consisted of around 60 sheep (easily manageable by one lone shepherd) and now the flocks are around 400. Not because there are more sheep, but because there are fewer shepherds. Milking alone – by hand up the mountain – takes 4 hours in the morning and another 4 at night. That’s why there are more couples now than before.
Then there’s a weekend of festivities. Processions and meals and music and sheepdog trials (all guilty says Neil) and the chance to chat to shepherds about their life.
Not far from Aramits there’s an absolutely stunning suspension bridge, well worth the scary and steep hike up there.
It was built in 1920 by Italian charbonniers (who make carbon for winter heat by slowly burning wood – and from whom the dish spaghetti carbonara came – thanks for the story Lucia x) to reduce the deviation with their load crossing the steep valley. It’s had a bit of a makeover since, for which I am incredibly grateful. It is HIGH and thin and wobbly. This was part of the conversation on the hike back down: Neil “We’re nearly there Katie. Not far now, just keep looking at the view.” Katie “There’s too much view Dad.”