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From The Countryman, Summer '95

Brion's autumn cattle fair starts early. As day broke, deals were being celebrated, maybe regretted, over a glass of wine in one of the stone barns pressed into service as cafés and restaurants. You need something to keep out the early chill at 4,000 feet. By eight o'clock the dealing is well under way; people outnumber the 400 cattle. Brown and white Montbeillard dairy cows are tied in lines with rope head collars, their bells left at home; two Friesians stand out as black and white impostors. Beef cows are mostly chestnut red Salers, their elegant horns sweeping up and back; the sprinkling of other beef breeds includes hardy, oatmeal coloured Aubracs, their eyes, noses and ears fetchingly black.


The remaining cattle are youngsters, straight from the mountains; reared as nature intended on nothing but milk and wild pasture, they find ready buyers to turn them into the finest beef. The backdrop of mountains apart, the men in waterproofs, hats and wellies could be at a Dartmoor sale. And the prices? 'Middling'.

Down below on the fertile plains, farmers are as prosperous as their Norfolk counterparts. Huge irrigated fields grow anything that thrives in Britain plus sunflowers, maize and, of course, vines. Some growers specialise in walnuts, asparagus or garlic. There is no cultivation back in the mountains; hill cow subsidies may be more generous than Britain's and livestock farmers get other help as well, yet empty cottages and farms tell of a continuing drift from the land. Young folk look elsewhere for work, even though Paris has a more sympathetic attitude to agriculture than London. Apart from climate, terrain and the EEC, Auvergne's livestock farmers have other worries.
Allanche15 Summer1
Winter2 Egliseneuve12 Most perplexing is the fragmentation of their land. Property is left equally between children, a tradition which has created an enduring problem. Two hundred years ago the village of Thuret's 1,500 acres were in 5,800 parcels. Determined attempts by government to consolidate holdings have had success on the lowlands though not in the hills where farmers spend hours moving stock from one little field to another a mile away. Some fields have no water or difficult access, others are simply too small to bother with. So it is that land grazed since the last ice age is taken over by wild broom, then scrub, then forest.

Where a mole makes a dozen neat heaps of soil, a 'rat taupier' or rat-mole makes a hundred. Brown rodents 5½ inches long with a 2½ inch tail, small ears and eyes, they eat roots, in the garden munching their way underground along the rows of vegetables. Touch the carrot plant that looks limp and it falls over, revealing an empty hole where the carrot should have been. In the fields, soil from their hills contaminates the hay and damages machinery. Like voles and lemmings they often increase to plague proportions.

Until quite recently, farming families would move in summer to high farmsteads known as 'burons'. Their dairy cows cropped the sweet mountain pastures; milk was turned into St Nectaire or Cantal cheese. At the beginning of this century there were a thousand active burons, now there are a dozen. Will burons suffer the same fate as Britain's drove roads or the Dartmoor warreners' homes, overgrown and fallen into disrepair yet used within living memory? In spring, all over the Massif Central beef herds are still moved up to the high grazings, a tradition known as the 'estive'. In Allanche it is celebrated the last Saturday in May. On their way to the mountains, groups of Salers walk along the main street, tricolour ribbons decorating their horns, bells clanging. Stalls are set up, musicians play, there is a holiday air. First prize in the raffle is a pedigree heifer.

Further south sheep are milked to make Roquefort cheese. In the greener north, flocks contain tens rather than hundreds because of the high cost of fencing small fields. From May to September, on the Puy de Sancy 2,200 ewes, dozens of small flocks run together, are looked after by an old shepherd who lives in a hut with his two dogs for company. Nowadays few people are willing to spend months alone, with no doctor or café nearby, without even a television. Snow can dust the peaks from September, the last drifts disappearing in July. Cantal, in mid Auvergne, has grazing land higher than Ben Nevis, but in other ways, the scenery, the wild flowers, the superb walking, even the rainfall, it is like Devon, on a grander scale; the National Park, eighty miles north to south, is Europe's largest. From a farming point of view, a Devon dairy farmer is likely to be in his thirties, single handed and milking eighty cows or more. His Cantal counterpart is older, has half the number of cows and can count on family help. Half a dozen men and women with wooden rakes gleaning the last wisps of hay for the baler is a common sight. A direct result of small herds is that animal health seems better. In spite of cattle standing immobile all winter, it is unusual to see a lame cow. Reportedly the average British dairy cow is culled at six, many Cantal herds have twenty year olds.

Little artificial fertiliser is used. In the warm summer days, grass thick with flowers and herbs makes quickly into sweet, green hay. A third cut is often taken as late as the end of September. Cows graze the aftermaths dotted with purple autumn crocus before coming in to winter in traditional stone shippens. Partly to avoid keeping the family at the other end of the building awake all night, the cows' collars and bells are hung up in lines on the wall. Enough hay for winter plus a bit spare is stacked in the loft above. Five months cattle spend, tied by a chain round the neck, before hurling themselves ecstatically out again onto the freshly green spring grass.

Perhaps a cow with a bell round her neck, spending the days looking after her calf while eating gentians and wild thyme is not the most efficient of systems. But it produces food worth eating, gives employment in an area where there is little else, it is natural, sustainable and a joy to see.


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