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 larger and more visible the group of visitors to his territory, the more he tends to hide. However, we note that he is quite easy to tame with wine, pastis or red meat. On the other hand, we have met one who prefers fruit juice to wine, brown rice and salad to steak. (These bizarre tastes correspond, it seems to us, to the hair length of the shepherd but that remains to be verified.)

2 shepherdsAfter an intensive psycho-sociological study and numerous experiments, we have established one fundamental point which must colour our attitudes: every shepherd is convinced that the mountain belongs to him. This fact we must take into account in all our encounters with him.

For example, he will greatly appreciate us asking him permission to pitch camp or to draw water from a spring. Then he will prove to be ready with useful advice, notably on the coming weather (for which he seems to be endowed with an extra sense). He will even help us scout out a suitable site, as he generally knows his sector very well. In this regard he exhibits a marked dislike of anything resembling a hole or cave (in which a sheep can stumble or fall) and it's always judicious to let him notice that we have filled in any holes we may have made during our explorations. Likewise he appreciates us leaving our camp sites free of rubbish when we depart.

Another psychological constant we have observed is that he is not overly modest and in fact may tend to be condescending towards us. We have even met a shepherd who compared himself to an eagle or an isard (chamois). This seems due to the fact that he keeps to the ridges and crests, the better to survey his flock.

One simple method of taming a shepherd consists of reporting to him any stray sheep or cows you may spy, taking care to notice the mark (or pégé) on its back as well as its colour or its location. (The pégé is a paint mark on the sheep's shoulder, back or rump used to identify its owner.) Cows, on the other hand, have a numbered tag in one ear. (It's a good idea to inform the shepherd in such a way that it allows him to say that he "already knows.") The same goes for any dead beasts we encounter.

At this point it should be obvious that you must at all costs prevent your dog from wandering loose (it's even greatly preferable not to bring one with you) as the shepherd is quite obsessed with this subject.

estivesIn order to facilitate contact, it's best to know a few commonly used terms in French so as not to be treated as a "tourist"--which often sounds like an insult coming from him.

Brebis: adult female sheep. They make up the vast majority of the flock and it's the general term he uses when speaking of the group, and not the term mouton which is reserved for castrated males more than one year old. Intact males for reproduction are the beliers, (rams) often with horns, depending on the region. Agneau is a lamb.

He uses the term mousquer or coumer to refer to the habit of the animals to shelter from the midday sun--one that he shares as well. He calls it "faire la sieste" and it's never wise to disturb him at that hour, even to ask for matches or a tin opener.

Another taming tactic which we have successfully employed -- especially when his cabin is isolated or above the treeline -- consists of leaving an armload of firewood at his door. His acknowledgement will be proportional to the size of the load and can provoke an invitation to spend an evening in his company. (Be prepared for stories about animals and times past.) It's better in that case not to arrive with a crowd, especially if you're not bringing a bottle.

We should emphasize here that it's strongly recommended you not enter "his" cabin during his absence, even if it's indicated on the map (erroneously no doubt) as a "refuge."

One sense that seems exceptionally well developed is his sight, which he further sharpens with a pair of binoculars, and he will always be aware of your comings and goings as well as your morning activities. Something to keep in mind.

Here's hoping that these few remarks can bridge the divide that separates two civilisations, so that together we may enjoy the mountains around us.

Translated by Kim Chevalier

Francis Chevillon is a member of the Association de Pâtres de l'Ariège. Now retired, he used to tend his flocks near his gîte d'étape on the GR10 transpyreneen hiking trail. His son has taken over his sheepfarming activities. For more information abou the association:

Many thanks to these photographers

About us

From 2000 to the end of 2017 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.