The transhumance is the leading of livestock (cows, sheep, horses) to the high mountains (or "estives") for the summer months, farms in Ariege generally being too small to support an entire herd all year round. The ascent occurs in late May and early June, sometimes taking several days. The descent from the estives takes place in early October.
Until 30 to 40 years ago the transhumance concerned mainly milk cows, and cheesemaking was an important activity on the estives. Pigs were brought up to be fattened on the byproducts of the cheese fabrication, as well as sheep which grazed the steepest slopes inaccessible to cows. A cat was essential to protect the cheese from mice, and chickens provided eggs.
In some regions up until this century, nearly all the members of a family decamped to the higher mountains with their cows, living in rudimentary stone cabins. In most cases one "pâtre" or shepherd looked after the herd. He usually slept in a tiny round hut resembling a stone igloo, called an "orri," built without mortar and the top covered with turf.
This system evolved during the middle ages and endured until the early 20th century when it began to break down as a result of industrialisation and the depopulation of the countryside. In recent times associations of livestock farmers have formed which hire shepherds and cowherds to look after the animals. A census conducted by the Fédération Pastorale de l'Ariège in June 1997 of livestock on the 66 estives counted 12,000 cows, 40,000 sheep and 1,000 horses.
The work of the shepherd/cowherd is seasonal (4-5 months) with very long hours (5:00 am - 10 pm). His task is complex: the animals in his care must be cared for and watched over to limit losses (from falls, disease, accidents) and he is also responsible for the lands he occupies. He must maintain it and indeed improve it through rotation of the grazing area and strategic transfers of the herd. He must strive for a management in harmony with the eco system.
The shepherd is assisted in his work by one or more dogs. In the Pyrenees, two breeds of herd dog predominate: the berger des Pyrénées (Labrit) and the Border Collie. As a guard dog the Great Pyrenees (Patou) is favored. Normally the shepherd trains the dogs himself, which requires a good understanding of the behaviour of the sheep and the dog. For this purpose, and for the job in general, a training program exists which prepares one for the vocation of shepherd as well as ongoing training for those already working.
This article is an adaptation of one written for the French version of the site by Francis Chevillon, a shepherd who works the estives above Seix near the GR10 walking trail. He has a gîte d'étape for walkers where you might well meet him tending his flock.
Participating in a transhumance
The transhumance occurs in early June, for ascending, and in early October for descending. In the Couserans there are several festivals surrounding the transhumance. Some sheep, cattle and horse farms welcome people interesting in hiking up (or riding on horseback) to the summer pastures. These include: