The longest walk
The Iriberri family claims that in France today, theirs is the longest transhumance anyone makes on foot. I joined them on the 3 and 4 September for the start of their 2022 odyssey. They will arrive at their farm in the tiny village of Labescau between Agen and Bordeaux on 25 September after a walk of around 300 kilometres with their 350 sheep, six dogs, Geronimo the donkey and a posse of friends.
Here is the programme if you want to catch up with them along the way. Otherwise, they will be doing the same thing at the same time next year.
After that, there was little discernible change in the life of a traditional shepherd in the Pyrenees until motorised transport appeared in the 20th century. By around 1970, most farmers practising long-distance transhumance had switched to using lorries, although the last stage of the journey into the high mountains was still made on foot for reasons which will be obvious to anyone who has climbed up there themselves.
An ancient tradition reborn
In the late 1990s, a countryside heritage organisation called ADIPP based in Bordeaux decided to make an educational film about transhumance. Understandably, they did not want to point their cameras at livestock flying down the autoroute in trailers pulled by trucks. They wanted to capture the drovers and their beasts ambling through the picturesque countryside of southern France on their own four hooves or trotters. The problem was, no one had practised transhumance by foot between the department of the Gironde and the Pyrenees since the second world war.
Starting with Stéphane’s first journey in 2000, ADIPP and the Iriberris have turned each stop along the way into an opportunity to educate children and adults, and to celebrate. Today, villages along the way are impatient to welcome the woolly, four-legged procession, and many of them organise a fête, including meals for several hundred diners.
‘Every day there is a celebration at lunchtime and another one in the evening,’ Pauline told me. ‘It can be rather tiring.’
Her smile suggested she was relishing this new challenge. And who wouldn’t, after spending ten weeks up a mountain chasing sheep?