Ledeuix (France) (AFP)

Unexpected consequence of the coronavirus health crisis: the quality of the grass on the peaks of the Pyrenees is compromised and with it the quality and quantity of the famous sheep cheeses produced during summer pastures.

With the approach of summer, the transhumance of the flocks of sheep must begin these next days in Béarn, but the shepherds fear a season "very complicated" after the restrictions of spring.

The confinement forced them, like everyone else, to stay at home. No question, therefore, of going to the mountains to maintain the huts that welcome them during the summer pasture.

The 13 gendarmes from the high mountain platoon, based in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, took care of this. "We offered our help at the start of confinement at the Haut Béarn Heritage Institute, which gave us a list of around fifty huts to go and inspect," explains chef Renaud Saison. There may have been avalanche flows in the winter or missing or broken tiles on the roofs, details the gendarme.

But the shepherds are above all concerned about the quality of the grass, compromised in the mountains by the prohibition of any fogging during confinement, according to the association of transhumant breeders of the Bearn valleys.

On March 20, the prefecture of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques decided to suspend the practice "until the end of confinement", so that "the departmental fire and rescue services as well as the gendarmerie focus exclusively on the protection of the population ".

Ecobuage, this ancestral practice which consists in setting fire to demarcated plots in order to burn the so-called "dry" vegetation, allows the flowering of a tender and leafy grass, ideal for grazing.

Jeanine Loustau, shepherdess living in Arette and Ledeuix, who rises in summer pasture in Accous, in the Aspe valley, does not "understand at all" the decision of the prefecture and believes, on the contrary, that confinement would have been "an ideal moment, since the mountain was empty of all walkers for two months! "

Without scorching, "the grass of last year makes a carpet on the ground and the vegetation which manages to pierce the layer, it is woody, stems which are reinforced which do not have the same fodder or dairy value that tender grass ", specifies Julien Lassalle, president of the association of transhumant breeders.

- "We feel forgotten" -

This "carpet", in case of humidity, even gives off a repelling odor for the sheep, which give up grazing.

Usually practiced between March and April, eco-mud is no longer current. "In the meantime, the large cattle, that is to say the cows and horses have been mounted, so cohabitation with eco-clouds is impossible", explains Julien Lassalle. Especially since since 2012, the practice is prohibited between April and October "to control unregulated eco-clouds that could go on fire," said the prefecture.

The 380 animals of Jeanine Loustau will therefore go up to Accous from the beginning of June, but the breeder has no illusions: "There will be no grass, therefore no milk and no cheese. We talked about agriculture for two months, to feed people, but next to that we feel forgotten, "breathes the breeder.

She said she had "seriously considered" giving up the summer pasture, without resolving it. "The sheep need it and the exploitation too because we cannot make hay if the animals are there. It is essential on small surfaces like ours". For her, summer cheese, a tasty product that is often known on a farm, represents 30% of its annual production.

The health crisis has also made an important aspect of transhumance impossible: the party that accompanies it. There too, rallies at the start of transhumance were prohibited. "This is an important moment for us because there is a lot of participation and it allows us to create links with the locals, tourists, consumers. These are privileged moments where we feel good" , regrets Julien Lassalle.

© 2020 AFP