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“When the Urban Mammal Encounters the Rural Mammal”

Guillaume Leterrier is an urban shepherd and former regional development specialist working in the social and solidarity economy.

Members of the Les Bergers Urbains collective have been rearing sheep in Seine-Saint-Denis since 2012. To promote peasant farming in the city, they pasture their domesticated sheep in Saint-Denis, Bondy and Aubervilliers, improving the parks and gardens in the three areas and creating a special bond with local residents.

Portrait: ©Teresa Suarez

In what way can a sheep shift our perception of the city?

Guillaume Leterrier: Our collective offers a gentler approach to managing open spaces by re-introducing a little bit of nature into the city. The sheep graze and then we see different types of grass appear and the return of flower-filled meadows. It gives us the opportunity to question our sedentary lifestyle.

The shepherd and the flock really do represent the nomadic lifestyle. The sheep always has the same rhythm. You have to wait, there’s no point going any faster. When the urban mammal encounters the rural mammal, it becomes more human.

It works pretty well: forcing the city to slow down makes it a more agreeable place. When you watch a sheep moving around parks and gardens, you realise that these open spaces are everywhere in the city, there are far more of them than you’d think. So it’s bit like a marker of the city.

©Guillaume Leterrier for Les Bergers Urbains

Is urban transhumance something new or a forgotten custom?

It has always existed. We drew on a medieval law, the grazing right which allows people to pasture their animals on all fields and spaces which are open, not fenced in and not cultivated.

Paris would never have become a great city without the grazing land that surrounded it. Broadly, animal rearing began to disappear from cities in the 60s when the fridge was invented. According to FAO figures, fifteen years ago urban farming was feeding between 15 and 30 percent of the global population, mainly in the southern hemisphere. So it never totally disappeared.

How do you deal with moving your flock around the city?

We work with the Direction Départementale de la Protection des Populations (DDPP) [local department for protecting populations]. We inform the prefecture of our flocks’ movements at least a month in advance in case they carry and transmit any diseases. We also ask every commune we cross for permission to use the streets. The flock has to walk on the pavements, not the roads. The sheep are very domesticated, they know all about walking on the pavement.

We don’t really have a problem with urban planning. However, the city is clearly a much more pleasant place when it is open and green. We’re a bit like regional ambassadors working on managing open spaces, showing how to run them differently as well as bring them to life more easily.

©Guillaume Leterrier pour Les Bergers Urbains

We’re talking about equivalent costs, but we’ve got several roles:  social cohesion, safety, mediation, things like that. And we can produce meat with a distinctive taste from the same animals feeding at different places. The wider the palette of flavours, the nicer it is. It’s useful to work on that aspect and to promote urban territories.

Do you feel that urban transhumance should be more widespread?

We’re not the only oddballs doing it. And actually it’s wrong to talk about transhumance, because it involves movement across large areas; what we do is travelling grazing and roaming. We’ve advised quite a lot of people: Lyon and Marseille are taking the same path, as is Brussels. The demand is there. We could imagine networks of breeders around Paris at the local authority level, the sharing of practices, meadows that work better, with more biodiversity.

When we lose our bond with animals, something feels not quite right. We can tell that something’s missing. So the ability to recreate it really is essential to the city of the future.