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Sheep and the city: Greater Paris experiments with transhumance
Twenty-five sheep triumphantly ended their 12-day transhumance on Wednesday in Paris after walking, grazing and bleating together in towns around the capital. Paris had a thriving farming culture up to the 1960s and the organisers wanted to revive that, to show that sheep in the city is both possible and desirable.
They’ve sampled the grass and weeds in more than 30 towns around Paris during their 140 km promenade known officially as Transhumance du Grand Paris. And now they're trotting along the pavements of some of Paris's plushest streets.
They stop every now and again, in fact whenever they feel like it, to munch a clump of grass poking out of the paving stones or chew on plants climbing the high fences protecting the upmarket apartment blocks.
Organised by the Greater Paris metropolis and the cultural online media "Enlarge Your Paris" the 12-day event is a kind of eco-farming and cultural festival designed to show that sheep have their place in town.
The sheep in question were born and bred in the Courneuve near Paris, raised by the Urban Shepherds (Bergers Urbains) collective.
Sheep are “quite at home in the city” says Guillaume, the collective's co-founder. “In terms of serious pastoralism, where you really want the best for the animals, especially in the case of seasonal pastoralism, sheep have a lot more to gain from being in the city than from being kept indoors in the country,” he explains.
What’s more sheep have always been part of the city but industrialised farming methods and better food conservation broke the link between city-dwellers and animals.
“Until 1960, there were butchers and their herds; there were cows all around the cities. They were kept for the milk, as there were no fridges to keep the milk fresh in. Even in the city, sheep were part of the social fabric.”
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People stop, stare and take pictures as the sheep navigate the pedestrian crossings, guided by a couple of friendly policemen on bicycles and several commanding shepherdesses.
The transhumance allows city-dwellers “to become a lot more open, to slow down, to return to a pace of life which is more worthwhile than the one offered or imposed by the city,” Guillaume adds.
A most sociable animal that brings out the best in humans
The sheep, shepherds, walkers, and policemen stop off in a small children’s city park in the 16th arrondissement. Children - and adults - come along to stroke the sheep and ask questions. Guillaume has a rest.
"You have sheep everywhere in the world and all cultures. People have a real relation with them," says Clothilde, a volunteer shepherdess clearly enchanted with the project.
"Sheep are happy so long as they have enough to eat and they eat all the time. They decide where we go, the rhythm, and if they’re not happy they stop. If they’re not happy you see it."
The sheep seem very happy. They're sociable creatures and Clothilde says we can learn a lot from them.
"Each of them has his own role in the flock, there is a leader [Charles-Edouard with his distinctive coat-cut], when one is tired another comes to help. The interaction between them and us is interesting.
"People must know it’s an animal with a personality, not only meat. If they’re not here we’re not here. Our survival depends on their survival."
Next step: sheep in Marseille
Sheep & the City: Soon in Marseille?
Sheep could literally be life-savers if Marie-Anne Corniou's project in Marseille takes off.
Inspired by the Urban Shepherds collective, she gave up her career as a lawyer two years ago to become a full-time shepherdess and plans to open a similar centre.
One of the driving forces is to help find solutions to major ecological problems affecting Marseille due to the serious fire risks in the area.
“In the 50s and 60s, there used to be flocks grazing on the hills of Marseille, close to houses," she explains, caressing one of the sheep. "Then the city expanded and farmers and breeders moved away from the city to find grazing land. Scrubland spread which provided large amounts of flammable material, and greatly increased the risk of fire. So reintroducing sheep to Marseille would help meet such risks.”