Transhumance produces natural flavours and guarantees biodiversity, providing high quality products (meat, wool, milk, cheese) paced by the natural cycles of grass and animals. These cattle receive natural and balanced food, mainly based on maternal milk. Because transhumant cattle maintain an excellent balance of grease and fiber, they produced meat with an excellent aroma and taste.
To meet growing demands from consumers, in the areas of food safety, traceability, origin, and breeds, breeders have chosen to produce under official quality labels.
The herds are made up of breeds referred to as rustic, resulting from a long selection, now suitable for longs travels, challenging weather and feeding conditions.
There are 3 types of transhumance:
- The summer transhumance: this is the most developed practice. It allows breeders to avoid droughts by going to the mountain where the snow has melted and the grass is growing.
- The “local” transhumance : for herds already in the mountains that go to the plains during the winter and the piedmont during the summer
- The winter transhumance : some mountain herds go to the plain or littorals during the winter
Many livestock animals are used to transhumance: bovine in the Massif Central, northern Alps and Pyrénées, ovine in the southern Alps, Provence, Pyrénées and Cevenne, goats in Corse and horses in the Pyrénées.
There are nearly 2 million transhumant cattle. In the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region, approximately 600,000 cattle spend every summer in the mountain and 100,000 spend the winter in the plains.
For thousands of years, Mediterranean countries have been practicing transhumance for environmental, economical, and cultural reasons. The climate, along with the existence of plains and mountains, is favorable to pastoral activity.
When breeding practices originated almost 11,000 years ago, they were widely used in the fertile crescent, near the borders of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Palestine. As the practice of transhumance continues to disseminate into other regions. Wherever they are, breeders and transhumant shepherds still ignore borders.
Jean-Claude Duclos, head of the Dauphinois Museum and Vice-president of the Maison de la Transhumance, wrote in Le Sage et le Nomade (L’Alpe n°3):
« It was during long periods of stability, in the Roman era and then in the Middle Ages, […], when the economy progresses and big land owners in the valleys and plains invest in wool production like never before, that the practice of transhumance spread. What to do in summer with several thousand cattle when droughts prevent grass from growing, insects bite and going into the cultures would jeopardise and bring disturbance? And in the mountains, what to do in big seigniorial or monastic estates where, in spite of huge grass resources during the summer, herds are limited to the number of cattle that can be fed in the stable during the winter?
In the first case, the solution consists in sending the herds to the mountains; it’s summer transhumance. In the second case, it consists in moving them to the valleys and low altitude plains where grass resources are available: it’s winter transhumance. In both cases, political and economic alliances had to be entered into, between the plain and the mountain and the mountain and the plain, and skills had to be found, to ensure the moving, stay and fattening of the herds…».
Breeders started producing meat in the late 19th century following the removal of customs duties on wool, making regional production competitive against imports. It is no surprise that, for a century, regional breeders have been producing meat.
Maintain biodiversity and opened landscapes:
Herds are essential to maintaining open environments. Herds are essential to maintaining open environments. Transhumant breeding is a paragon for environmental protection and natural space improvement: fire fighting contribution, the steppe ecosystem, enhancement of farming fallow land, and maintenance of alpine areas. Since the nineties, breeders have pioneered the various schemes of the Agri-Environmental measures that have continuously succeeded one another.
If we only look at the Southern Alps and Provence area, extensive pasturing of transhumant herds maintains almost 800 000 hectares.
An evolving practice:
In the early 20th century, the pastoral trade has consistently showed an outstanding ability to adjust by switchingfrom wool production to meat production, replacing foot transhumance with train and truck transhumance, taking an active role in agri-environmental measures, and complying with strict sanitary requirements.. Though it still requires high level expertise and great responsibility, herding has become a modern profession.
Advancements in transhumant breeding include water point improvements, helicopters, sun power, and radiotelephones, improved cabins, mobile fences, contention parks. These are all examples of how transhumant ovine breeding can take advantage of its benefits of its time.
To learn more :
Visit the Maison de la Transhumance website