Old tradition comes home

21 June 2002

Old tradition comes home

RENE Tramier, President of the Shepherds in Provence, was worried French children believed milk came in cartons (yes, it happens there too). So 19 years ago he and his committee decided it was time to bang the drum for local farmers.

What better way than by bringing the sheep back in to town, home to Princess Caroline of Monaco and many international celebrities, by reviving their Fàte de Transhumance?

At this years event, earlier this month, 20,000 people lined the route. TV cameramen rushing along the road alerted them the procession was approaching. Suddenly sheepdogs swept through, competently herding their charges past the crowds, the sheep following their Menon – a castrated ram whose horns ensured a wary alliance between him and the sheepdogs. Gradually there was a deeper note from the bells, and a herd of goats rushed past.

Wearing the traditional costume of black corduroy waistcoat and trousers, Tramier marched at the head of the herd, followed by shepherds, their wives and daughters in local dress, farmers leading decorated donkeys and a cart hung with cooking pots. There are over 650,000 Merinos dArles in the area, originally from Spain, encouraged by Napoleon when he needed wool for uniforms. Many sheepdogs are Border Collies, proudly bred from stock imported from Britain. To the delight of the crowds they worked alongside local dogs, including Beaucerons; many watchers have never seen a working dog.

Throughout the day the message from farmers was buy local meat. Tramier admits he has done a deal with the giant supermarket group Carrefour, but if they try to knock him down on price, he tells them they are not allowed to use his name when selling his lamb. Good relations have been established with the local Tourist Board, who publicise the event on their web-site (www. saintremy-de-provence.com).

The Boards CEO, Yann Rebeck, works with farmers to encourage use of local produce, and at the top restaurant Bistrot des Alpilles was delighted when the owner said he was fully booked for his Menu Transhumance; the eight legs of lamb roasting on the spit were constantly being replenished. Visitors trooped into shops selling local produce and the Broccante (cross between a car boot sale and a flea market) was doing a roaring trade. All in all, there seemed remarkably little dirt.

After the procession 500 people went on to a pic-nique or barbecue. For £20 there was grilled lamb, salads, cheese and chocolate eclairs, and of course wine. Here my host confided: "I was in the demonstration against the British lambs," but setting fire to lorries had sickened him. Agreeing we were against politicians and Brussels, not each other, we listened to shepherds singing the old songs in the Provenáal dialect.

Here in Britain we seldom needed to take herds miles to graze, but we did have mass droves moving animals across Britain to market and such history would provide ample basis for a Drovers Festival. Almost every country town has Drovers Roads and Drovers Arms; cattle swam across from the Scottish islands to the mainland; Halfpenny Field commemorates the price drovers paid for a nights grazing, and Old English Sheepdogs chivvied stock to market, then returned home on their own while master stayed in town for a night or two. Drovers were the DHL couriers of their day, carrying your money and valuables to and from city vaults.

Droving passed out of our life with the coming of railways, although in remote parts there are still shepherds who took part in minor droves. Once DEFRA allow free movement, a celebration based on these incredible marches would surely bring in visitors? Sheep, goats, cattle, geese and turkeys were all taken to market this way; perhaps Bernard Matthews would let his turkeys troop through the local town?

Seriously – it does have potential – think what it could do for the rural economy.

Transhumance is the annual European

migration when flocks go up the

mountains and return with the first

snows. For centuries this has been the

cue for celebrations, and the way the

town of St Remy-de-Provence decided

to revive these could possibly have

lessons for our rural communities,

says Verité Reily Collins

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