659,200 lawnmowers

Ceci n'est pas une brebis

This is not a sheep

At the beginning of summer, as the snow melts and the vegetation awakes, yawning, stretching its arms, turning slowly from yellow to green, the lawnmowers are trundled out of their winter storage, for four months of intensive activity in the sunshine. According to a 1999 survey, there are 659,200 of them in the Pyrenees.

According to the farmers these are not lawnmowers, but real live sheep and cows which they are taking up to the estives, rough pasture at 1400m to 2200m above sea level. But in the parallel world of the authorities, these are full-time lawnmowers and snow ploughs. In the evening and at weekends they moonlight as care workers for disabled shepherds. Some are museum curators. In this world, they are there to cut the grass. They are there to reduce avalanches. They are there to help overcome the handicap of living in the mountains. And they are there to ensure the continuity of a traditional lifestyle. This is why the authorities pay out grants.

The production of meat, milk and cheese is incidental. If the aim were to raise sheep and cattle for food, the authorities would be encouraging farmers in the mountains to descend onto the plains where the grass is literally greener – all year round.

I have been reading a university thesis (1) about livestock farmers in the Ariège département, in the central Pyrenees. The author, Corine Eychenne, emphasises how much livestock farmers here (and in other mountainous areas) depend on grants. In the Pyrenees they account for over half their income. (2)

The first of these “gardening” grants dates to 1974. A disastrous avalanche in the Val d’Isère in 1970 had buried 39 youngsters staying in a winter holiday centre. The long grass had prevented the snow from sticking to the hillside. In order to avoid a repetition, cows and sheep were to be employed as lawnmowers, and not just around ski resorts. The grant became known as the prime à la vache tondeuse (the cow-lawnmower grant).

Then in 1993, the Indemnité compensatrice des handicaps naturels (natural handicap compensation) was introduced. The aim, according to the ministry of Agriculture, is to “compensate the increased production costs of farming in these zones. The subsidy plays an important role in the rural world by encouraging small farmers in difficult zones, thus contributing to harmonious rural development.”  In 2008, mountain farms throughout France received an average of 4,250 euros each.

The question is whether the grants contribute to sustainable development or simply help to sustain the status quo. The mainstay of livestock farming in the Pyrenees for many years has been the production of broutards which are then sold to Italy and Spain for fattening. Broutards are young sheep and cattle which go up to the mountain with their mothers and live in a natural way on an organic diet of milk and grass. And then they are sent abroad and fattened on the cheapest feeds imaginable! (3) The various food crises have greatly increased demand for organic products and consumers are prepared to pay the price. Yet there is no recognised organic fattening system and Pyrenean farmers are reluctant to slaughter animals which are not “finished”. Only a few brave souls are starting to sell broutards directly to consumers.

In this parallel world, the sheep and cows have become lawnmowers, snowploughs, care workers and museum curators. I can see a bow-legged Pyrenean shepherd holding his organic sheep-lawnmower by the back legs as they limp across the hillside, preening their museum-piece landscape. At the end of the day, the sheep nuzzles up to the shepherd who feeds it a MacDo hamburger, and talks of the old times, when living in the mountains wasn’t a handicap, but an adventure.

1. Corinne Eychenne (2007) Hommes et troupeaux en montagne – la question pastorale en Ariège. Paris: L’Harmattan.

2. The average income of a livestock farm in the Pyrenees in 1995 (the most recent statistics at the time Eychenne was writing) was 12,500 euros. This was complemented by 13,900 euros of subsidies (111% of income).

3. Eychenne (2007) pp. 238–9.

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