Shepherds on Stilts
If you live in the US, prepare yourself: July 27th is National Walk On Stilts Day. No need for visions of scary clowns at the circus or broken limbs in the ER. Instead think of sheep! The sheep of long-ago France who were tended by shepherds on stilts.
You’ll find the département of Landes in southwestern France, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Landes is bigger than the country of Cyprus, with a long coastline attracting surfers. The French mini-series “The Last Wave” was filmed on the Landes coast—think mysterious giant wave sweeps away surfers who return with superpowers! Mysterious superpowers aside, today the area touts itself as the best of the coast and the best of the countryside all in one, but that wasn’t always the case.
A couple hundred years ago, Landes was GU: geographically undesirable. How, you may ask, could any place in la Belle France be an undesirable place to live? Well, a large portion of Landes consisted of plains covered only with undergrowth, brushwood, and scrubby plants. To make matters worse, the soil was very hard and resistant to rain, so that even a small shower caused water to pool. Low-lying areas turned into swampy marshes. Inhabitants lived in cottages that were spread apart, without roads or even good tracks to connect them. Drifting sands from the coast brought by cold Atlantic winds.
Residents of this area had difficulty getting around. And this is where the stilts came in: an ingenious solution to an intractable geographic problem. By using stilts to get around, residents of this rather inhospitable region were able to pass through muck and swamp without sinking or getting stuck. Stilts also helped residents travel more quickly over the terrain—helpful in a place where cottages were set far apart. Of course, the stilts had a great advantage for shepherds, who could gaze down at their flocks from a high perch and spot any trouble immediately.
Contemporaneous accounts tell us that the stilts were about six or seven feet high, with a leather band at the top to hold the stilt firmly against the lower leg. A footrest with stirrup and strap was set about five feet above the ground. The bottom of the stilt was sometimes reinforced with a sheep bone cap. Shepherds could round up errant sheep or tend herds of cattle or goats, covering lots of territory quickly. Some stilt-walkers were able to pick up stones or flowers from the ground without mishap or right themselves if they took a tumble. Especially skilled walkers competed in contests, with a sheep or other valuable item as the prize.
Even more remarkable than traveling on stilts: a shepherd’s ability to sit on the stilts for some time without moving. Many stilts had a rounded top, allowing the wearer to sit and rest in one place; those without built-in accommodation on their stilts wedged in a small board as a seat. Using a long staff, the wearer created a kind of tripod for stability. “[T]hey get so skillful in this manner of sitting that they can not only rest themselves,” one account notes, “but even manage to use their fingers briskly in knitting stockings.” You think turning a heel is tough in the comfort of your own living room? Imagine doing it while perched on top of stilts.
What did one wear to a stilt-sitting, sheep-tending session? Why, a beret, of course, or a sheepskin cap. Shepherds also wore long coats or vests made of shaggy sheepskins. Long leather gaiters covered their shoes and lower legs for protection. While most shepherds were men, women taking their turn at guarding the flock sported bonnets looking like “an inverted coal bin,” one observer noted.
The unforgiving plains of the Landes area meant that any livestock had to be hardy to survive. The native sheep, now known as Landois or Landes de Bretagne, could graze even under difficult conditions. A relatively small breed and hornless, Landois sheep had dark fleece with spotted head or feet. (Today’s Landois are usually white, however.) They were able to live outdoors all year round, so long as some shelter was available. Their dung helped fertilize the harsh soil and their wool was used to clothe residents.
As is typical with hardy outdoor breeds, Landois wool is on the coarser side, long and smooth with a healthy amount of guard hair mixed in. Several hundred thousand Landois sheep lived in southwest France up until sometime in the 19th century. It’s an endangered heritage sheep and is now being brought back with the help of a dedicated Landois sheep association, formed in 2004.
One major reason for the breed’s decline: a massive attempt to reshape the land. You might think “who WOULDN’T want to live in a swamp surrounded by shifting sand dunes with no drainage and barren moorland?” I’ll tell you who: the inhabitants, stuck in a miserable cycle of poverty. Their sheep provided some meat and wool, but it wasn’t enough. Farmers tried to scrape crops out of the soil, but sandy land with no drainage was unsuitable for every plant they tried. Rice? Nope. Tobacco? Nope. Peanuts? Nope. To make matters worse, malaria brought by mosquitoes who thrived in the swamps decimated the population.
In the early 1800s, nearby lords began efforts to reclaim the terrain. They stabilized the dunes and built drainage ditches. Eventually, they discovered a species of maritime pine that would reliably grow in the Landes soil. An 1857 statute required that all local municipalities in the region drain their swamps and improve the land, which pretty much meant “Plantez les pines!” Forestation helped stabilize the area, allowing residents to farm corn and other crops. Pine tree forests created their own industries like timber, resin and turpentine, and papermaking. One unintended consequence was the benefit to the Bordeaux wine region. Grapes like merlot and cabernet sauvignon were now able to ripen to their fullest potential once the forest blocked the cold Atlantic winds.
Shepherds on stilts are no longer an everyday sight in southwestern France, more’s the pity. But they remain a historical reminder that ingenuity and really good balance can help overcome even the most difficult challenges.