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A familiar journey in search of cool pastures for French sheep

Country Matters


Sheep moving to higher ground in Occitanie, France

Sheep moving to higher ground in Occitanie, France

Sheep moving to higher ground in Occitanie, France

Transhumance, a romantic word, has to do with relocating farm animals, particularly sheep, in great numbers over long distances; my hands-on experience is confined to hauling a couple of smelly creatures into the back of a Land Cruiser to move them from one field to another when I was a much younger person.

These days I can barely haul myself into any type of vehicle without a step-up facility for the elderly. Time goes by.

I can still recall the overpowering smell of the woollies’ thick coats, badly in need of shearing. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I met sheep people on my travels who cared for their charges, and the bounty thereof. After shearing, some even lay down in the wool mass to snatch 40 winks. I heard of one man in Kerry who slept in his great wool store during severe weather.

I had come upon transhumance in Spain and Portugal as a spectacle of animal herding to be admired, and last week a reader in the south of France sent me images of a great train of sheared sheep passing through a village.

The word itself means the moving of livestock from one grazing area to another in a seasonal cycle. This used to be seen more regularly in an older Ireland but motor transport does the work now.

It is still very much part of rural life in mainland Europe, with the animals being guided by shepherds and obedient dogs on sometimes arduous journeys through towns and countryside seeking resting places for grass and water along the way.

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Once in Meath, long ago, to my surprise I came upon a great mass of sheep on their patient journey along a public road. By some miracle, two men and a couple of dogs kept the great tide of dust and beasts moving into a village and thence to high ground several miles away.

In the French village of Montpeyroux in the Hérault Occitanie region, 1,000 sheep looking neat and trim after a haircut, with neck bells tinkling from blue ribbons, passed through — delighting children and making some adults nervous about the fate of their roadside blooms.

By nightfall, the great mass had reached an oasis of grazing and water to rest on their long, disciplined odyssey to cool pastures away from the baking lowlands on a historic journey that has seen little change over many centuries.


A last word on the recent lovely linnet with scarlet forehead and breast flashings (the reader image sent by E MacEochaigh from Co Waterford could not be reproduced for technical reasons) and the romantic link with Napoleon, the “green linnet” of Irish history.

I thank readers Damien Boyd of Cork and Kieran Dillon of Clare for kind letters and defer for expert advice to Niall Hatch of BirdWatch Ireland, who says that “green linnet” is an antiquated term for a greenfinch. Both are members of the finch family but not closely related — the twite is closer to the linnet — and there are many linnet species worldwide; a Yemen linnet, for example.

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