Today Stage 17 of the the Tour de France will pass through some stunning mountain scenery and views as it passes Azet en route to St Lary Soulon. It will also pass the Maison Pyrénéenne Du Pastoralism. The house combines a museum /information centre and centre for the development of contemporary practice in pastoralism. It focusses not only on the Pyrenees, although this is a large part of the exhibitions, but also reflects on practice elsewhere, including for example, french speaking ex-colonial Africa, drawing comparison between different forms of pastoralism.
We went over this pass on the way to Spain via the tunnel at Bielsa to access the Spanish side of the Pyrenees and the Pineta Valley, which I’ve blogged about before, and came across the museum quite unexpectedly and decided to stop and have a look around.
Part of the exhibition was based on an exchange programme between the Haute Pyrenees and Mali which aimed to share information and good practice in both agricultural activity bust also in the promotion and markets of agricultural products.
Interestingly this definition of transhumance presented in the museum has a stronger emphasis on the role of seasonal rain than do many definitions. As such it may be seen as an ecologically determined definition that some may feel inadequately accounts for difference in transhumance across both time and space, be that the Spanish Mesta, French Crau, Australian, North America, Asia of Africa, all off which have varying practices of seasonal movement to access better grazing. Indeed the narrative established by the museum for Pyrenean transhumance privileges economic motivation for this form of agricultural practice.
However, what this privileging of seasonal rains does allow is for a stronger similarity to practice in Africa to be drawn:
The pastoral system of Mali is dependent on strong water resources and rainy seasons are eagerly awaited.
When it arrives the cattle move to areas that will be flooded. Ephemeral water points are filled up and the dune plateaus are covered with young shoots of herbaceous plants. The animals will be able to drink and eat.
At the end of September, when the rainy season ends, the emphemeral water points become dry. The cattle must leave these areas to migrate to the wintering areas. They pass through mixed zones where they feed on residues of cereal or other crops. In November, the rice area begin to be harvested and the animals can then feed on remaining rice straws.
Based on the exchange programme, or perhaps informing it, the museum information boards drew further attention to the similarities between transhumance in Mali and France explaining that:
As in the regions of France the pastoral peoples of Mali have developed a precise vocabulary to describe their work places and practices.
Thus, the Harima is a pasture reserved for animals that must remain close to a village (dairy cows, draft oxen, donkeys and horses). The Bourti are places of passage for animals between two distinct zones. The Bille a staging post or stopover for herds on the transhumance routes, with times reserved for the rest of the men and herds. The Loumbirde are the crossings points of the streams and the rivers.
Other terms indicate the rules codifying the pastoral calendar and its activities. For example, the Goundi designate and organise the collection of milk from flocks. Djei N’goola are transhumance departures. Finally, the Loubus are the schedule of the crossings.
The museum all addressed the issue of the shared challenge of maintaining traditional lifestyles and the productivity of marginal geographical locales from modern challenges, whilst also addressing how modern technologies and developments can be deployed to support such traditions. For example, whilst transhumance was seen as a distinctly traditional form of agricultural or pastoral practice, new technologies such as geolocation devices and remote monitoring of pasture, along with the ability to retain contact with families via mobiles phones whilst on the move with the animals, were all presented as opportunities to be mobilised in sustaining this way of life.
There was also an exhibition that focussed on the history and development of sheep breeds in the central pyrenees, that according to my rudimentary French aimed to show how that genetic and pastoral heritage was still very much a part of contemporary mountain life.
The exhibition explained that the Central Pyrenees is traditionally an area of lamb meat production characterised by the transhumant movement of sheep within the mountains but also bringing sheep in from the lowland plains and surrounding areas.
The use of breeds adapted to local conditions were seen as having 3 main benefits:
- Economic: the use of local breeds enhances the value of the work of local breeders who have and continue to adapt the breeds to meet requirements for both quality and efficiency in production to the benefit of consumers.
- Environmental: the development of agricultural systems based on local breeds has made it possible to maintain a farming system based on the exploitation of local fodder and pastoral resources. As such, the breeds are true land use management tools
- Social: The use of local breeds makes it possible to highlight the know-how of the local breeders through locally based collective organisation which allows farming systems and local knowledge to be valued and developed.
The picture above shows 5 of the 6 sheep breeds identified as local to the area in the exhibition. The one missing from this display but included in the other information provided was the mountain black or Montagne Noir.
The local sheep of the Central Pyrenees
Below I’ll take you through the different breeds represented and give a little more information about them. Much of the information I’ve accessed perhaps unsurprisingly focusses more on meat than wool, but I’ve included information on fleece that I’ve found.
However, if we really want to to promote the role of sheep in supporting the local economy, environment and social life of the mountain communities of the pyrenees, then perhaps wool also needs to be part of that narrative and initiatives.
To that end I want to draw your attention to both Halte Laaa which promotes the use of pyrenean wool and Laine Paysannes. Despite my limited french I’m quite excited by what Laine Paysannes are doing by paying producers a fair price for their wool and using local mills and woollen goods manufacturers, to turn it into an appropriately valued product. Working together with key partners including shepherds and breeders etc. they produce items with full traceability (if you click on the ‘levers’ menu, you can see the sheep farms they work with listed by main sheep breed including Tarasconnaise. You can follow them on Facebook here, and see their hand knitting yarn here.
The Tarasconnaise breed, takes it’s name from the Tarascon Valley in Arriege but originates from an ancient population of Syrian sheep. A collective breeders organisation was first established in the 1930s which in the 1970s became part of UPRA (now Races de France), the Federation of French Breeders Associations and flock books, and today it represents the bulk of the sheep flock on the Pyrennees massif.
Of average size and white colouring the Tarasconnaise has slightly basal ears with horizontal horns present in both sexes, thin on the female and spiral on the male. The fleece is white and the belly and limbs have little coverage. Rams weigh an average of 80 – 90 kgs and ewes 60-70kg.
Digging around for a little more info on fleece suggests that the wool is fine and crimpy with a staple length of 5 to 10 cm, which the source suggests ‘allows it to adapt to climatic shocks’. This is possibly also a a result of historic cross breeding with merino.
The Tarasconnaise is also thought well suited to transhumance because of it’s ability to mobilize its body reserves to allow it to withstand periods of food restriction. It has strong legs suited to covering large distances and rams can stay with the flock and sire year round, allowing lambing to be spread across the year although in practice it tends to be organised to allow for selling lambs after summer grazing.
Aure et Campan
The Aure et Campan is a result of crossing local pyrenean sheep with Spanish merinos in the 1800s and is named after the 2 valleys where it has been historically raised. The most important centers remain Saint-Lary Soulan, Arreau and Campan.
The flock book was established in 1975 and there are currently about 9000 of these sheep, 1800 female, across 10 flocks, with Races de France identifying it as a conservation breed
It’s an average sized sheep with medium sized horizontal ears, some males have spiral horns. Rams weigh 80-90kg and ewes 60-70kg.
The Aure et Campan is regarded as a meat sheep but the long standing merino influence means it has a fine fleece of 6cm staple length and 2 – 2.5kg fleeces.
Again it is ideal for/has adapted well to it’s mountain environment and transhumance given its long, strong legs. it is also maternal and produces milk well for feeding lambs with the majority lambing between August and December, following the introduction of the ram in April-May. The ram may remain with the flock for 6 to 7 months, including during transhumance to high mountains from early June to the end of September.
The Castillionaise is regarded as a Pyrenean curly breed first referenced in 1907 and named after the valley of Castillon in Ariège. In the 19th century, it was popular among farmers on the plain for being smaller and easy to fatten. However, the increasing popularity of the Tarasconnaise, has led to a decline of the population from 50,000 in 1929, to 2,000 in the 1980s.
Its flock book was established in 1982 and conservation measures have been taken including conservation of genetic material and planned breeding schedules resulting in a stabilisation of the population at about 3,000 ewes (including 1800 registered in the flock book) distributed in about twenty farms.
Ewes weigh 45-55 kg and rams 60-70 kg . The head is fine, stained with red, and the ears are slightly pendulous. Half of the males have spiral horns while the ewes do not. The wool is white, with a short staple and sometimes spotted with copper red. All the loose parts are red. It is also called “red head”.
More info here
The Barègeoise is also a Pyrenean curly wool sheep as a result of contact with the merino. It’s isolation in the Barèges Valley has however led to the identification of this sheep as a particular genetic type.
Again the flock book was created in 1975, outlining an average sized sheep 50 – 60 kg ewes and 75 – 90 kg rams.
The head is white, the ears medium and both sexes have spiral horns.
Its fleece is white and fine but tend to be low in weight.
The Baregeoise is a high mountain breed and is regarded as a good walker, maternal and robust.
Again it is a conservation breed with about 4,000 sheep of which 3,000 are ewes and 80 rams registered in flock book. It’s mainly centred further across the Pyrenees, around Gavarnie.
More info here
The Lourdaise is the breed with the fewest remaining sheep. In 1975, when UPRA and the flock book was established, the purebred herd was about 3,500 females. Today, only about 830 ewes remain in 23 farms.
The reason given include the bad conformation of the animals combined with the challenges faced by a sheep industry in which these poorly conformed sheep seem ill placed to compete.
The Lourdes is a large sheep, 70-80 kg for the ewe and 70-100 kg for the ram.
The head is fine, the ears long and low. Spiral horns are present in both sexes
The fleece is usually white, but can also be black (10% of animals) and lacks homogeneity in the breed. The locks can be 10 to 15 cm and extend to the flanks but the underside of the belly is uncovered.
The Lourdaise was traditionally farmed for mutton (2-3 years old) which has been out of vogue in commercial meat farming, although is experiencing something of a comeback in the UK, for example, thanks to the slow food movement, marketing heritage breeds etc.
Instead it is now reared using the popular pyrenean system of summer mountain pasture from June to September, half-mountain foreland barns before and after the summer and sheepfold in the middle of winter, when animals receive hay. 85% of lambing takes place from September to November.
The Montagne Noire is average size sheep, ewes weighing 50 to 60 kg and rams 70 and 80 kg. There are about 2,000 breeding ewes in the Montagne Noire breed. Whilst a conservation level sheep there is not a formal selection programme for the Montagne Noire although numbers are monitored.
It was originally used as a milk sheep and was involved in Roquefort production, but was replaced in that role by the Lacaune. Latterly it has been used in meat production, especially for terminal crossing with other breeds to produce lamb meat. For meat production its build and quick growth are valued.
Its skin is light and coloured, its fleece not well developed, and has no horns.
Whilst robust it is not regarded as well adapted to high mountains, so is raised in the plains or in mid-mountain and is not involved in transhumant movement to distant or high pasture.
More information on the promotion of sheep productions from the Pyrenees an be found at the Commission Ovine des Pyrénées Centrales.
The Museum at Azet is staffed by local producers who are involved in the development projects its involved in. I’d certainly says it’s worth a stop off if you’re in the area and I’d be interested to hear if anyone has, and if there were different exhibitions to view.
The Pyrenees are also home to local breeds of cattle and local cheese is made from both sheep and cows milk, and sometimes a combination of the two. After we had headed into Spain, we went to Ainsa on market day for provisions, only to bump into the chap we had met at staffing the museum at Azet. Apparently he came down to the market each week to sell his cheese. Of course we had to buy some of his sheep cheese and his sheep and cows cheese and I must say both were very good indeed.
All the best
The Patrim Network The Patrim network video on you tube - showing the museum and lots ofsheep