Don’t Miss These Transhumance Events in Provence
If you are in Provence in the spring or fall, you might see the movement of sheep and goats to greener pastures – transhumance. These organized transhumance events in Provence are kid-friendly and entertaining. Watching several thousand animals moving through village streets is worth experiencing.
Seasonal weather dictates the direction of the animals’ movement away from the summer heat or winter cold. The animals feed in the garrigues, or scrub-lands of the Crau and Camargue, during the fall and winter. After the spring rains, the flocks head north to the Alps and the Jura for the summer months.
The bi-annual movement of livestock between valleys and higher alpine pastures is a definitive marker of the changing seasons. Transhumance comes from Latin roots, trans ‘across ‘and humus’ ground, ‘with the seasonal movement of animal flocks existing from Neolithic times. As the weather warmed some 4000 years ago, it became necessary to move grazing herds to higher ground to find food.
Forms of transhumance exist on almost every continent, with variations in timing, cultural influences and distances travelled. The practice of flock herding and nomadic migration has occurred naturally for centuries as a way to transfer livestock between grazing areas. Now the method decidedly more modern-day complete with transport trucks, marching bands, festivities and crowds, but still magical.
Animal Husbandry and Religion
Originally, grazing land was readily available, and flock movements were relatively unrestricted. The Cistercian religious order, took a particular interest in acquiring pastureland rights, to feed their flocks. This land acquisition increased power and the wealth of the sect. Animal husbandry also reduced their financial dependence on cereal crops, which were labour intensive and suffered from challenges of weather and pestilence. Agreements called convenientiae settled the conflicts arising over grazing rights and the effects of the Cistercian transhumances. These agreements documented the restrictions on the land and the timing of the flock movement.
Sheep herds were quite large into the middle of the 19th century, at between 2000-10,000 animals. The sheep were raised primarily for their wool, milk and meat were secondary. In 1860, France signed an agreement with the United Kingdom, allowing for the importation of wool from the British Empire.
The focus for commercial farmers in France changed to rearing sheep for protein sources, and wool sheep herds were sold off at low prices. Good news, the practice of raising sheep for merino wool is making a resurgence in Provence with operations such as Tricote Moi un Mouton.
Over time the practice has become restricted by private land ownership, the development of urban areas and the expansion of transportation corridors (roads and rail). However, some evidence of the traditional migration routes is visible in fields around Provence. Look for drailles; these small pathways were used by sheepherders to move their flocks through villages.
In Provence, today, the transhumance of sheep and goats involves transport trucks. Today, there are festive events in villages, which include parades of old farming equipment, traditional costumes, marching band and lots of animals.
Transhumance Events in Provence
May-June: The annual transhumance in St Rémy de Provence takes place on the Monday of Pentecôte (whit Monday). It is a day full of activities running from early morning through early evening. The animal herd arrives in the centre of town at roughly 10:30 -11 am. The sheep and goats are encouraged around the circle twice before heading back up to the plateau (crau). Secure your spot early as it is a popular event. Discover 9 Fun Things To Do In St Rémy de Provence. Gayle Pagett shares some history lessons she learned about St Rémy.
December 24th: It’s always a white Christmas Eve in the village of Allauch near Marseille. The midnight mass ends with la Descente des Bergers. It’s a procession of residents in 19th century period costumes and a flock of 150 sheep.
The last Sunday in January: The church in the Alpilles village of Saint Martin de Crau celebrates le Pastrage, the benediction of a lamb. As a bonus, there is also a blessing of navettes (a boat-shaped cookie) and samples.