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Pastoral traditions in the Ariège Pyrenees

Because it’s a  mountainous region, in Ariège agriculture has always been practiced on a small scale. Cultivation exists only at a subsistence level in higher elevations, with crops such as maize and rape found in the plain and foothills. Cows and sheep are brought to the high mountains for summer grazing, as are herds of native Mérens horses, who spend half the year in total freedom. After decades of exodus, in recent years, younger people have settled in the mountain farmsteads to farm organically, raising pigs and chickens as well as goats for cheesemaking. Others cultivate the land using horses and mules for traction. You’ll find all their products in the farmers markets and local butchers’ shops.

The Stone Barns of Cominac

The stairstep shape of their gables is peculiar to this valley

grange mtvalierThe hamlet of Cominac sits on a wide, sunny plateau above the Garbet river valley, 5 km from the village of Ercé in the Couserans. The site is celebrated for its stunning view of the Mont Valier and above all for the unusual profile of the many stone barns that dot the vast pastures: their pinions have a kind of stairstep along the edges.

The roofs of these barns used to be thatched with rye or wheat straw. These cereals were grown on the numerous terraces surrounding the village. It was the roofing material of the poor, for it cost them only time and sweat.

The Mérens Horse - black prince of the Pyrenees

cheval merensThis small, black horse is native to the Ariège Pyrenees, having the name of a village in the high mountains close to Andorra. Paintings of horses strikingly similar to the Mérens are found on the walls of the cave at Niaux. Gentle, hardy and economical, the Mérens horse has long been a companion to the "Montagnol" (mountain farmer) and the soldier, notably with the armies of the Count of Foix Gaston Phoebus in the Middle Ages, and later Napoleon during the Russian campaign.

Herd dogs of the Pyrenees

bwcowsThere are numerous breeds of herd dogs, but the ones most commonly used in the Pyrenees are the Border Collie, the Berger des Pyrénées (Pyreneen sheepdog) and the Great Pyrenees (nicknamed "le Patou").

The Border Collie

Of scottish origin, it is considered by many shepherds to be the best dog for rounding up and driving sheep and cows, as well as goats, pigs and geese. They are very calm, docile and passionate about their work and are very easy to command.

Gascony cows

vache gasconneThe gascon breed of cows is well adapted to the terrain of our mountainous region and the rigours of the transhumance. Its character shows itself in various ways: tough, black hooves allow it to walk long distances, a grey coat and black muzzle provide resistance from exposure to the intense sun at high altitudes, good thermo tolerance allows it to adapt to wide variations of temperature, and it thrives on a diverse diet of wild plants and grasses.

Le Patou (Great Pyrenees)

patouDuring your walks in the mountains, you are likely to encounter large white dogs of impressive bulk. Often called "pastous" or "patous", they mix with the flock of sheep and assure its protection.

This breed, called le Montagne des Pyrénées in French and Great Pyrenees in English, is considered a part of the mountain patrimony. Used in France until the end of the 19th century, it has gradually disappeared from these mountains as the large predators -- bears, wolves and lynx -- have become rare. The natural return of wolves in the Mercantour and the reintroduction of bears in the central Pyrenees have stimulated a renewal of interest in this type of guard dog.

How to Tame a Shepherd

By Francis Chevillon

francis chevillonMany species are beginning to disappear from the mountains. Right now I'd like to discuss one we commonly call a shepherd. (Berger in French, pâtre in old French.)

It's a strange species, generally armed with a stick, a head covering of various forms, and an umbrella whatever the weather. He is always accompanied by a dog or two, often noisy ones, but not usually agressive.

His manner is sometimes surprising: affable, or surly, and the cause is not always apparent. We have, however, noticed some interesting constants:

The Transhumance

transhumance cows pyreneesThe transhumance is the leading of livestock (cows, sheep, horses) to the high mountains (or "estives") for the summer months, farms in Ariege generally being too small to support an entire herd all year round. The ascent occurs in late May and early June, sometimes taking several days. The descent from the estives takes place in early October.

Until 30 to 40 years ago the transhumance concerned mainly milk cows, and cheesemaking was an important activity on the estives. Pigs were brought up to be fattened on the byproducts of the cheese fabrication, as well as sheep which grazed the steepest slopes inaccessible to cows. A cat was essential to protect the cheese from mice, and chickens provided eggs.

Many thanks to these photographers

About us

From 2000 to the end of 2017 ariege.com was a site devoted to tourism in the department of Ariège. The site is minimally maintained now but you can get a flavour of this beautiful area of the Pyrenees.