La Fête de la Transhumance is approaching, when local towns and villages will be invaded by thousands of sheep with their shepherds, goats and dogs as they make their way to Alpine pastures.
While it is an impressive sight to behold, finding yourself stuck in your car behind a couple of thousand slow-moving sheep when you're late for a rendez vous can be a singularly frustrating and rather pungent experience.
And then there the millions upon millions of droppings these woolly beasts leave behind them which, when diluted with a bit of rainwater, cake the treads of your tyres and turn winding country roads into treacherous skid pans. After a couple of days of mayhem, les troupeaux move on and that is when the flies, taons and other biting insects, attracted by the spring sunshine and sheep droppings arrive.
Even while you're scratching the insect bites on your bodies, some of you might argue that the points I've raised so far are only mild inconveniences when compared to the charm of getting up close and personal with such a traditional local celebration.
Traditional? In fact, no. Shepherding is undeniably one of the oldest professions in the world, but la Fête de la Transhumance is a recent initiative, created in the early 1990's by the FDO (Fédération Départementale Ovine) and seen by many (including people within the profession) as a means of bringing in the tourists, rather than as a true celebration of this noble profession. Indeed, many young shepherds refuse to get involved, saying they would feel like performing animals to be gawked at by the visitors. It is for this reason that most of the shepherds who participate in the fête tend to be the old timers.
Meanwhile, springtime in the National Parks of the Luberon and the Mercantour is truly a joy to behold, with wild flowers stretching as far as the eye can see. One is not allowed to pick a wild flower in a National Park, but that doesn't stop the sheep from razing every last shoot to the ground; eating the flowers before they have time to produce and shed their seeds, thus surely contributing to the disappearance of some of France's rarest plants.
Sedentary eleveurs would doubtless agree with me: historically, there has always been hostility and conflict between sedentary and transhumant farmers, with sedentary farmers resenting the travelling animals that mosey onto their turf and compete for the same grazing. Health and public safety concerns have also been voiced as these travelling flocks mix freely with other flocks and share the same pasture, possibly facilitating the spread of diseases such as brucellosis, which is transmissable to humans.
Who could forget the poignant images of the funeral pyres which burned for weeks in the UK after the last Foot & Mouth outbreak? Surely this only emphasises the potential foolhardiness of this annual sheep migration in France?
I grew up in the British countryside, surrounded by farmland and where I lived, sheep were kept fenced in. Sheep, cows or any other domestic farm animal for that matter, should not be allowed to go gallavanting around the landscape.
On the whole, I think it would be a good idea if the practice of transhumance was baa-nned.
Article from "Reader's Viewpoint" of The Riviera Reporter Var Supplement, issue April/May 2007.
N.B. Views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by the editors, who reserve the right not to publish all the articles received.