Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Little Rural Drama in Provence

The local shepherd, Antoine, had parked his sheep down the track among the olive trees that belong to our neighbour, Sebastien, who owns the small local Presse.

A dozen or so sheep gave birth in mid-April and they and their lambs were guarded against thieves and dogs by Babar, a huge white-blonde Pyrenean mountain dog. Babar is a bit prone to wandering it seems, so he has a block of something-or-other, not too heavy, around his neck to discourage him from straying.

Last week as I was getting ready to go to Paris for a few days I drove down the road and saw that the temporary barrier round the sheep was lying flat. Two sheep and several lambs were mooching around grazing by the road.

I stopped the car, got out and tried to shepherd them back into the pen but they just wandered further away. Babar, I noticed, wasn't around.

The sheep and new lambs were in danger not just from cars that might pass on the track but also from the little canal just nearby.

As I didn't have Antoine's phone number, I drove to the village and went to the Presse. Sebastien would have the number. But Sebastien was away for the day and his assistant couldn't help. I went to the small local bar and asked a few of the guys if they knew Antoine. One guy did but had no idea how to reach him. Try the Police Municipale they all said.

I didn't much want to go to the police. For all I know, Antoine's sheep are non declar├ęs and he might end up in trouble for not paying taxes. So I went to the fire station. In rural France, firemen are like a cross between an emergency service, a general maintenance team and social glue. A tall handsome fireman who looked like the American actor James Stewart greeted me. After listening to my worry that the sheep would be hit by cars and the lambs would fall into the canal he explained that his team of pompiers can go out to manage stray horses but not stray sheep. Still, he said, he'd phone his colleague Lionel Toutlemonde because, as his name suggests, Lionel knows everyone.

Lionel, however, didn't have a number for Antoine and I ended up running into a neighbour who did.

We called Antoine and he arrived within half an hour, speeding up the track in his beat-up van.

I hung around in the little hamlet just nearby to see what the outcome would be and he came to find me after an hour or so. Babar had pitched up when Antoine called out for him. He had a bad gash on his neck and had obviously been in a scrap with another dog. His lovely pale fur was bloodied and matted. He looked rather cowed. Presumably he'd chased his marauding rival over the fence, flattening it in the process.

All the sheep were accounted for and Antoine had returned them to the pen. But, sadly, one of the lambs had died. Had it been attacked, I asked? No, he said. It was just lying, peacefully, dead. A percentage of the new lambs will always die, he said philosophically.

I drove down the road today and stopped to have a look at the little troop. It was hot and sunny - a still, calm spring day in Provence - and the lambs were mostly snoozing in the sun beside their mothers. They looked sublimely comfortable in the long grass beneath the still olive trees. One or two were nibbling at flowers and a couple of the sheep were clipping leaves from the olive trees. It was a beautiful rural scene, completely peaceful.

I drove off and spotted Antoine's van arriving further down the road. He stopped and leant out of the window.
"I just passed them" I told him.
"Are they all right?"
"They're fine. Very peaceful. Grazing, dozing."
"Babar still with them?"
"Yes, he's there."
"Good" he said. "Not long now and they'll be off to the butcher's."

Which disrupted my sweet image somewhat. But that's Provence. The people, the animals, the land and the dinner table are strictly and closely connected.

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