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There is magic in the idea of a journey. A desire to travel and the draw of distant lands whisper quietly to many of us—especially during a global pandemic. One of the planet’s oldest journeys is transhumance, the seasonal movement of livestock between grazing grounds. In the French Alps, this slow, ritual migration has been part of rural culture for thousands of years. Every summer, on a journey that can take weeks on foot, flocks of sheep are herded from lowland farms up to fresh, green alpine pastures.
Today, most farmers move their flocks by truck. However, while it may be faster, road transport is expensive. It is also not without its risks to the sheep, who can die from the shock of a sudden drop in air temperature as they arrive at altitude. So, some shepherds choose to do their transhumance on foot, just as their ancestors did. It is not only the sheep that benefit. Grazing as they go, and depositing undigested seeds sometime later, the sheep not only improve soil fertility but they also help create ecological corridors that connect habitats and enable the genetic exchange of wild species, producing a thriving biodiversity.
I’d long been intrigued by this journey and, one summer, an organic sheep farmer from the Maritime Alps, Jean-Philippe Girod, invited me to join and photograph his transhumance. Considered a relatively short one at only 30 kilometers, it would nevertheless take three days and nights. I packed as light a kit bag as possible and joined him, his friends, shepherds, 600 sheep and a few dogs, both sheepdogs and the imposing patous—a breed of Pyrenean mountain dogs that would protect the sheep from wolves on this rather extraordinary trip into the mountains.
We walked during the cooler hours of the day, starting before dawn. Unknown to many, ancient mountain paths and sunken lanes still make up a network of transhumance trails that are in use today. However, some paths are no longer accessible and certain stretches of road unavoidable. Our shepherds and helpers prevented enterprising ewes from obliterating village gardens; they carried lambs too small to keep up; and when traffic or the occasional cyclist was encountered, they moved the sheep—not famed for their road sense—to one side. Much to my surprise, the sheep needed neither guiding nor driving. Many of the older ewes had done the trip several years running and clearly knew where they were going. Certain strong wethers (as castrated rams are called) had been selected to wear the heavy, ceremonial transhumance bells that would warn of the flock’s imminent arrival and alert the shepherds to breakaway parties—and the bells’ constant deep chimes made for a poignant soundtrack to our journey.
At sunset on the first day, we set up camp atop a rocky bluff (not far from where stage 3 of the 2020 Tour de France passes). The ravine below and cliff face above meant that the sheep had nowhere to go, and so they dozed, unbothered, around us. As the fire got going, villagers from the valley appeared out of the darkness bearing gifts of food and drink for an evening of feasting that traditionally marks the start of summer in rural communities. A jovial night was fueled by merguez (a spicy sausage made from Jean-Philippe’s lambs), goat cheese (also from the farm), marshmallows roasting in the flames and a plum liqueur that someone’s uncle had brewed. Drinking, accordion-accompanied singing and laughter lasted into the early hours. Sparks from the fire and fireflies mingled in the darkness as, one by one, people melted away to settle down to sleep à la belle étoile [“under the stars”].
Several lambs were born on our journey…and one sheep died. As life unfolded, so did the landscape. From rocky scrub into woodlands, we climbed through the spectacular red rock of the Gorges du Cians and dense pine forest on mountain slopes, before finally emerging above the tree line in alpine pastures on the third morning. I could see the sheep’s delight—even the ewes gamboled like lambs. The pace became even slower on the last mountain climb as the flock spread out across a grazing paradise of luscious grass, herbs and flowers—home at last. Instead of the exhilaration that often comes with reaching a journey’s end, though, our small team of helpers simply sat down, speechless. The lasting silence, punctuated only by the muffled sound of bells, was partly due to exhaustion. Yet I don’t think I was the only one to feel subdued, reluctant for the 4×4 utility vehicles to arrive and transport us back to civilization, far below.