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LES ECHOS

Baaack To Nature: French Urbanites Choosing Shepherd's Life

In the Bouches-du-Rhône department of Southern France, a center trains students looking to get away from the 'superficiality' of modern life.

A transhumant shepherd herding sheep at the Merle Training Center.
A transhumant shepherd herding sheep at the Merle Training Center.
Feriel Alouti

SALON-DE-PROVENCE — For years, Adèle had always "pushed back time", making decisions at the last minute. After receiving her high school diploma at the prestigious Parisian high school Lycée Henri IV​, the always "overloaded" student made a rather surprising life choice: She began training as a shepherd.

After an internship in the Aspe valley in the region of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, something "clicked" and the now 21-year-old has decided to join the Le Merle training center in Salon-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône), one of three French institutions offering diploma courses in shepherding.

Created in 1930 as part of the Agro Institute, Le Merle — which has an agricultural area of 400 hectares — issues a professional agricultural certificate in "transhumance shepherding". Students are trained over a one-year period that follows the natural cycle of the sheep from birth to summer pasture, the four-month period in which the herds traverse the high mountain pastures. There, they learn the basics of the trade: care, feeding, driving herding dogs, shearing, mapping.

Among the 15 students each year, the vast majority are retraining themselves professionally. "Forty years ago, it was considered a bit like the village idiot's trade," Frédéric Laurent, educational manager of the training center, says with a smile. "But today, it attracts a primarily urban crowd."

Living against the grain.

Interested in environmental protection and animal welfare, these men and women have decided to take a step back, living against the grain of a society they consider too superficial. Laurent, who receives an average of 35 applications per year, notes that there's just one farmer's son out of this year's 15 trainees. To determine their motivation, candidates must present before a jury. "We question them about their professional aspirations," he explained. "Many say they love nature but that is not enough."

Shepherds have been in great demand since the reappearance of the wolf in and around the nearby Mercantour national park in the early 1990s. Breeders tend to be too busy and increasingly look for employees to accompany the sheep on summer pastures. The shepherd, joined by dogs, watches over and cares for hundreds of animals. According to Laurent, 500,000 ewes migrate through the region each year. "Our students have absolutely no problem finding work," he says. Over the past 20 years, 70% of Le Merle graduates have entered the sector, including 20% as breeders.

That morning, the students gathered in a classroom to follow the teaching of Laure Eon, a veterinarian, who lists infections that are likely to affect sheep. The room takes a summer camp vibe and each student shares their comments. "Are the drugs reimbursed by social security?" one student asks, provoking a general laugh. "I do believe they can benefit from CMU (universal health coverage)," laughs a student and former restaurant owner in another life.

The silence builds.

Adel Alexandre had long-imagined himself as a school teacher, but at 31 and after two failed exams, he decided to change lanes. A grandson of Tunisian farmers who was raised in Marseille, Alexandre longs to set up an educational farm in an urban environment. In the "search for authenticity," he wants to learn the basics of the shepherd profession, "a job that allows you to have a better view on society. Working with animals teaches you empathy and patience."

The summer is the most awaited and feared moment of the training, a stage in which the students will be able to put into practice the knowledge they have accumulated throughout the year. They can go out alone or accompanied. Some cabins are so isolated that the shepherds must be transported by helicopter. Alexandre admits that this crucial moment makes him anxious. "The great distances are very difficult, even if I get along very well with the sheep."

Adèle says she prefers to be far away from everything. "You learn a lot when you're alone," she says. To help students understand the loneliness, their teachers impart some advice, such as the need to maintain a rhythm in matters of hygiene and food, and the importance of not allowing themselves to fall into alcoholism.

At the end of the training, students often hope to accumulate shorter experiences, "to the chagrin of the breeders, who want to recruit them year-round," according to the educational manager. This is the case of 19-year-old Vincent. Following a road trip by bicycle and volunteering with the homeless, the shepherd-in-training wants to become seasonal. He is particularly interested in the job of accompanying Mauritanian shepherds in transhumance all the way to Senegal in five months. As someone who likes to live in rhythm with the sheep, he says that he "never felt as good as up there. The silence, it builds."

Aymeric, 48, graduated in 2018 after spending eight years working as an engineer for Alstom in New York and Mexico. Three years ago, he'd returned to France to "reconnect" with his roots and, intrigued by discussions surrounding the presence of wolves in the region, decided to become a shepherd.

Then there is 31-year-old Armand, who wants to eventually settle down as a breeder and work with wool. With a rich professional background already that includes 15 years at Airbus and two summer pastures, this former maintenance technician is now tied to the shepherd contract that earns 1,500 euro per month. As a seasonal worker, he can hope to earn 2,500 euro per month in the summer. Comparing the experience to his past work routine, he concludes: "Before I was a sheep. Today, I am a shepherd."

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