Witnessing the Magic of the Transhumance in Provence
The tinkling of bells was the musical clue. Our friend encouraged us to rush to their property’s perimeter wall to witness a shepherd (berger) moving his flock near Eguilles in Provence. The collection of sheep and herd dogs consumed the entire back lane as far as the eye could see, it was a vision of Provence’s rural heritage.
The bi-annual movement of livestock between the plains, valleys and higher alpine pastures – the transhumance – is a definitive marker of the changing seasons in Provence. The word transhumance comes from Latin roots, trans (across) and humus (ground). The practice of flock herding and nomadic migration has occurred naturally for centuries. It was a way of transferring livestock from one grazing ground to another. It is believed that the seasonal movement of animal flocks existed even in Neolithic times.
In Provence, the animals fed in the garrigue, or scrublands of the Crau and Camargue, in the fall and winter. Before spring turned to summer, the flocks headed north towards the Alps and the Jura for the hottest months. Today, the direction and timing of the animals’ movement is still dictated by the summer heat and colder temperatures in winter.
Land Ownership and Economic Changes
Initially, grazing land was readily available, and the animals’ passage was relatively unrestricted. The Cistercian religious order, took a particular interest in acquiring pastureland rights, to feed their herds. This land acquisition is believed to have increased power and the wealth of the Cistercian order. It reduced their dependence on cereal crops, which were labour intensive and suffered challenges of weather and pestilence. There are recorded conflicts over grazing rights and the effects of the Cistercians on the transhumance movement. Agreements called convenientia settled the disputes by documenting the restrictions on the land and the timing of the flock movement.
Into the middle of the 19th century, sheep herds were quite large at between 2000-10,000 animals. The sheep were raised primarily for their wool with milk and meat being secondary. In 1860, France signed an agreement with the United Kingdom allowing for the import of wool from the British Empire. This legislative change caused a rapid decline in the price of wool in France and the perceived value of the herds. The focus for commercial farmers changed to raising sheep as a protein source, and the wool herds were sold off at low prices.
Rural Traditions Live On
Private land ownership, the development of urban areas and the expansion of transportation corridors (roads and rail) restricts herd movement today. However, evidence of the traditional life does remain in the fields around Provence. Although, now the transhumance of sheep and goats involves transport trucks. Gone are the many weeks of walking northward along the walled sheep roads called drailles.
During the spring and fall watch for festive events in villages, which involve parades of old farming equipment, traditional costumes, marching band and LOTS of animals.
More posts on why the transhumance is a magical celebration of rural Provencal heritage.
Some of this article’s content was previously published on Ginger and Nutmeg (click here for the original post).