A couple of shepherds friends has been inviting us for two years to spend some time with them in their summer settlement, up on the high plateaus of the Vercors during their alpine season. Two years loaded with projects for us… we had to refuse their invitation. But this year we have a free week in august ! The decision is made: we give them a call, praying they have reception up there, pack our bags and hop on a train heading south ! Here we are, on the road to their hut, the Bergerie de Chamousset, built at 1842m high on the Vercors, several hours of walk from the closest village. We’ll spend a week with our friends, their 1600 sheep, 6 dogs and 2 horses…
A shepherd life on the high plateaus of the Vercors
Far away from 35 weekly hours in an office, a shepherd’s day is quite busy. Here we get up at 5AM and don’t come back to the hut before 8 or 9PM ! 5 months, 24h a day, 7 days a week. Early morning, as soon as we’re ready, we must get the herd in the night park to lead it to the pasture. On its way it will graze the grass of the plateau du Vercors. Our friends give us a few explanation : « When we first arrive on a mountain, it’s the sheep that make us discover the pastures, then we softly guide them, give them the rhythm, depending of the growth of the grass and the forecast ». The shepherds take care of all this maneuver and of the few stragglers. For that task they are assited by London, Owen and Jazz, 3 border collies trained for it.
Here time is running differently, everyday life is not the same. For a start, there is no means of telecommunication ! Except sometimes when the wind blows in the right direction, up there on the little hill… Life get organized around the rudimentary comfort of their shepherd hut composed of a small kitchen where tons of food are packed because it’s not possible to easly go down in the valley to shop, a little bathroom, a bedroom and a living room. This last one is the center of human life in the pasture. A fire burning in an old wood stove spreads a soft heat while smells of drying socks mix with the ones coming from the mountain cheese stored in the corner of the room.
Water and electricity management also bring us back to the basics: the house is out of the grid and there is no running water. The survival of the shepherds depends on a rainwater collector. The water is filtered and mineral salts that are necessary for our body must be added. As for the precious elecricity its generated by solar panels. When there is not enough light they use what is left on their batteries. So there is no refrigerator, and their water is warmed with a small machine using a gaz bottle. Back to the basics. Forget the hot showers, Netflix nights, text messages, long calls with your friends, and everything else ! Oh, and if something break down, don’t forget: you are alone ! Fix it yourself !
For us, this stay is the opportunity to cut from the world to recharge our batteries, to learn more about the shepherd’s lifestyle, but also to take photos of the first lights of the day on this strange flat mountain landscapes. A rock promontory looking like an african summit offers us a beautiful background, and the shepherds and sheep are perfect subjects. While moving around we learn everyday a little bit more about the management of the herd and the life of the sheep.
After mowing a large part of the pastures, the sheep need to take a break. And that is nice because the shepherd can then also take a break. But wait ! What break ? Yeah, they need time to ruminate, and most of the time they like to spend this time doing nothing under the shadow of a pine tree during the warmest hours of the day. Well this is what we should all do after lunch: a little nap. The shepherds, during that time, have their lunch and also enjoy a relaxing time under a tree. Eh, you must know how to enjoy little pleasures of life.
Our first day on the Vercors with the herd and the shepherds has been a little bit special. Indeed, there isn’t much water this year on the plateaus. And bad luck: the water tank is empty, thanks to the repairs that haven’t been done. This is a water crisis ! But the shepherds know they can depends on each others during the season, so we’re crossing the whole pasture to have a drink in the neighbour’s tank, a few hours away from here. Moving a herd on such a long distance is quite a job with dogs coordination, especially because we need to go through the forest. We’ll have to watch after the sheep and make sure it doesn’t spread too much, or that it isn’t going too fast nor too slow. So finally, after 4 hours on the rocky plateau, the break is well deserved for everyone.
We share a bit of ham and cheese, and wait until the sheep decides that it’s time to go back home. But don’t believe it’s like this everyday. We told you this was a special one ! This happens when the herd is moving far away from the shepherd hut.
When they’re not moving far, Vercors, Mac (the 2 great pyrenees) and Paf (the Anatolian Shepherd) are watching after the sheep. These huge dogs (bigger than some sheep) are truly part of the herd. They spend 24h a day with the sheep. And they have their own personality… The old Vercors is shy, Mac is a little bit of a princess and is not easy to approach, and Paf is like a teddy bear, and likes to play and sleep. They all have a reputation for being fierce. But are they really? They are trained to defend the herd against wolves or any other kind of attack. So naturally when a not so clever tourist comes a bit too close from the sheep or try to cut the pasture through the herd, they just do their job! Because a lot of people ignore it, but a panic move in a herd of 1600 sheep, that’s what we call a beautiful mess! But if you respect the codes they are adorable pets.
During that time, shepherds walk back to their hut to work on a lot of things Heal injureds or ill sheep, prepare and manage stuff, cook meals in advance, repair things… The to do list is loooooong when you live alone up there and are in charge of a herd of sheep, so the chances to take a break for the shepherds are fairly small. It would have been too nice otherwise!
We use that time either to help our friends in their tasks or to walk around the plateau du Vercors and take photos of the landscapes, flowers and little creatures living in the nature.
Finally at the end of the afternoon the herd start to wake up. Time to move back ! But above all, time to eat again a maximum of grass before nigthfall. Yep, the sheep won’t sleep anywhere while they are in their secured night park! So we’re walking all the way back during 4 hours across the plateau du Vercors. When we’re near the shepherd hut, berfore entering the nigh park, the herd must stop at the saltworks (flat stones on which shepherds put some raw salt) for the sheep to lick and obtain the necessary mineral supplements.
It’s only when it’s dark that we get the sheep totally secured in their night park, closed with electric fences and the 3 protection dogs inside. Thereby the herd is protected from potential wolves attacks. The wolf is back in the pastures, and it’s not rare to loose a sheep, especially while moving the herd, but the shepherds are (re)learning to work with that constraint which had disappeared before.
On the way back we have amazing opportunities to capture pictures of the maneuvers with a background of wonderful end of the day lights sublimated by large clouds, announcing nothing good for the coming days… But the shepherds’s life doesn’t stop when the forcast is bad. It’s even a lot more complicated, and we will experience it !
Shepherds in the mist of the Vercors
A herd must be taken care of whatever the weather decides to be, even rainy, windy or super foggy. We experienced a large blue sky with a bright sun these last days, but today we’ll get to know the legendary thick fog of the Vercors.
At 5AM, we switch our headlights on while it’s still pitch dark outside. We understand quite quickly that something is wrong. The light beam appears in the atmosphere, but the darkness is still as dense. Humidity put a end to our doubts: we are trapped in a thick layer of low clouds. We can’t see anything
The explanations given by our friends to reach their huts are coming back to our memories : » […] Be careful with eventual fog. If it takes place while you’re on your way up, it’s safer to pitch your tent and wait for it to go away. That’s better than falling in a hole. […] ». Ah, yeah, the famous holes. We had the opportunity to see them these last days, and we understand now how tricky the Vercors can be. And talking about trickery, we must not forget to tell you about these damn « hoof traps » ! Called lapiaz, those flat rocks are covering large portions of the groundand are covered with a lot of small holes cut in the rock like razor blades ! Even in day light they can be dangerous for the sheep, so now… With a mist that thick it’s fairly easy to put a foot or a hoof in one of them whitout knowing it until it breaks a leg! Have a look by yourself with these shots taken in clear weather:
But all of these, the sheep doesn’t care of. Rain, wind, fog, or invisible holes, they are hungry and have in mind only one thing: mowing the pastures ! So here we are, equiped like astronauts, ready to go and brave the danger… We won’t come back before a few hours, after we got lost in this damn grey cottony world. Impossible to find the way back to the hut, even with a compass. So imagine how difficult it can be to lead 1600 sheep if we can’t see 50m away. When it’s that foggy there is no break, no nap. We took the heard back inside the night park. What a pleasure for us to get back inside the hut and find the heat of the fire blazing in the woodstove.
There is definitely something magical about this plateau du Vercors… Whatever the forecast is, this region, its wildlife or its Men are bewitching. One thing is sure: we’ll come back ! Especially since we have some friends waiting for us during the season 😉
M. & Mme Shoes
Portraits from the Vercors
Focus on the differents characters from this travel diary: