Interview with Maison de la Transhumance

photo: the sheep run through the center of Die to head to the upper pastures with their shepherds during the Fête de la Transhumance,  June 2018. It can take 5-10 days of walking to get to greener pastures. photo: Cynthia Hathaway

During the Fête de la Transhumance in Die, France, I talked with Sandrine Plateel of the Maison de la Transhumance, an organization for the protection and communication of Meditteranean pastoral cultures.  She knew I was coming, so for our meeting, she was kind enough to bring an English description of the organization’s focus. I have edited our conversation and the text into the following:

Why Transhumance?

Transhumant ovine breeding and products represent role models of sustainable growth, beautiful flavours and guarantees biodiversity in a new agricultural economy.

Transhumance represents culture. Our local culture, and Provence’s identity. It may be the only system that represents our relationship to the mountains and the Mediteranean world. It also expresses peace, openness, dreams and freedom, and centers one in the time and space of Euro-mediteranean values. Defending transhumance ovine breeding is also focused on cultural heritage.

For millennia, in all Mediterranean countries, and for reasons both environmental (the climate but also the existence of plains and mountains favorable to pastoral activity) economical (wool and meat production, plus the need to remove the cattle during crop season) and cultural, the practice of transhumance is (or has been) constant everywhere.

Part of a common identity basis, it remains, between each of the Mediterranean populations, and beyond conflicts and differences, a reason for exchange and mutual acknowledgment between people, religions and cultures.

The invention of breeding some 11,000 years ago in the fertile crescent on the borders of Iraq, Syria and Palestine, the practice of transhumance promptly spread to the rest of the Mare Nostrum, showing both continuity and extraordinary ability to open up to other spaces and regions, people and nations.

Photo: spindles for spinning wool from the Bronze Age, Musée de Die, France.

DSC00429photo: from the book L’homme et le Mouton, dans l’espace de la transhumance. Musee Dauphinois, Drailles, Clair de Terre. Glénat publishers.

Wherever they are, breeders and transhumant shepherds still ignore borders.

In the Roman era, and Middle Ages, transhumance was necessary in both summer and winter months where grass resources were available. Political and economic alliances had to be entered into, between the mountain and the plain and the plain and the mountain, and skills had to be developed to ensure the moving, and resting to fatten the herds.

DSC00627photo: walking with the sheep from the vales to the mountains, with mushroom in hand, Drôme, France. June 2018. Photo: Cynthia Hathaway

Transhumance is a relationship model. It teaches people about ‘subtle crossing of knowledge’, landscapes of expertise and landmarks. The system has much at stake involving economic, environmental, cultural and society aspects, and is a chosen introduction for many educational approaches regarding history, rural space, the environment and sustainable growth. Transhumance as a educational model can easily lead to an understanding of the social, technical and economic changes in rural spaces.

Factors to consider for the future of transhumance require broader thinking on the future of society, and how much room to give to nature and culture, and to the relationships they establish between one another. For example, the reappearance of the wolf in transhumant herd areas brings issue to this relationship.

DSC00490photo: from the table of the Shepherd Association at the Fete de la Transhumance, Die, showing shepherds and breeders protesting the wolf and the rights of the sheep.

Transhumance is a model of relations between man, animals and the environment. Festivals have for centuries brought many into this world to share smells, the heat and sound of the herd crossing the city. These are moments to become sensually linked to the most unchanging parts of history and the space one feels he/she belongs to.

DSC00367photo: image posted on the exterior of a cafe in Die. Original photographer unknown. Photo taken by Cynthia Hathaway. 

Transhumant shepherds and breeders are careful and indispensable for the protection and pastoral potential of the space they use, and implement extensive environmentally friendly pasture practices.

The landscape of our great plains such as the Plain du Crau, or the high altitude lawns of the Alps or Pyrénées mountains is not as naturally natural as you would think. The nature sought after by so many hikers, skiers and other tourists, and the resulting source of income for locals is due to transhumance.

It is the teeth of the sheep that cut the grass and allow a variety of flora and fauna to survive. It is intelligent herding that contributes to enriching biological diversity and protection from erosion, avalanches or evasive shrubbery.

thumb_DSC00933_1024photo: sheep of the Picos de Europa, Spain. Cynthia Hathaway, 2018.

No other practice is likely to maintain at such low cost such a vast expanse, whilst maintaining such rich biodiversity. The future of various landscapes and many species, requires maintaining and redeveloping large ovine transhumance.

DSC00451photo: from the book L’homme et le Mouton, dans l’espace de la transhumance. Musee Dauphinois, Drailles, Clair de Terre. Glénat publishers.

Herds are the main guarantor of the management of many open environments. They have been created by an agro-pastoral history and irreversibly change once they are no longer grazed. Transhumant breeding is the preferred partner of environmental protection and natural space improvement. They contribute to firefighting, maintain the steppe ecosystem, enhance fallow land from farming, and maintain alpine areas. It makes sense, at a time when a European policy is being implemented, combining agriculture and environmental protection, that transhumance has been at the foreground of the various measures implemented in the past twenty years.  In the alps and Provence, breeders have pioneered the various schemes of Agri-Environmental measures since the 90’s: Articles 19, Local Agri-Environmental Operations, Territorial Operation Contracts, Sustainable Agricultural contracts and now, Territorial Agri-Environmental Measures.

Transhumant Shepherds and breeders have been sustainably maintaining relations for the past 11,000 years. Few practices remain from so long ago. What other activity than transhumant ovine breeding corresponds better to what our contemporaries call ‘sustainable growth?’

Able to maintain the conditions of a balanced relationship with the natural environment, meeting demands of all food, social environmental, cultural and even spiritual areas, transhumant ovine breeding, and in the way it has been done for centuries, remains one of the most convincing models.


The founding members of the Maison de la Transhumance, breeders, farmers, environmental agencies, human sciences experts, cultural players and elected representatives are convinced that an efficient and lasting action will not be conducted towards great ovine transhumance with out uniting their expertise.

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