In the Pyrenees, fall means the end of the summer mountain grazing season that began in the spring with the depart of the herds toward higher altitudes, known as the transhumance. The shepherds and their flocks, aided by their herding and guard dogs, have spent the summer in the rich, high mountain pastures, getting fat on summer wildflowers, herbs and grasses. In September, it is time to return to their lowland farms for the colder months.
Both the beginning and the end of this age-old practice is marked with traditional celebrations. Having taken part in the celebration of the transhumance in the Vallée d’Aspe at Lourdios in the spring, we of course, wanted to be on hand as the sheep, cattle, and horses returned this fall, at the celebration of the Fête des Bergers at Aramits, also in the Vallée d’Aspe.
The Fête des Bergers is a three day event, with a parade of the returning flocks, a market of local artisan producers, a judging and tasting of locally produced mountain cheeses and communal lunches and dinners everyday. There are performances of song and chant in the local Béarnais dialect, and dancers in costume traditional to the region. Some even danced on stilts, a nod to the days when shepherds used stilts to improve their field of vision on their wide ranging wards.
The most anticipated event is the annual competition to crown the most skilled shepherd/herding dog team. Each dog, guided by its owner, must find a herd of sheep located some hundreds of yards distant, then guide them through a series of obstacles before herding them into an enclosure at the finish. It is mesmerizing to watch the synchronicity between dog and human, communicated only through whistles and shouts. The event spooled out over two days, with qualifying and a final round with the top 12 teams.