Case Study

Experiment in practice


Experiment in practice


1. Introduction

The Domaine du Merle, a 400-hectare site on the Crau plain in Provence, has been an essential part of transhumance breeding for almost a century. It is a centre for training, research and experimentation on transhumance. association La Maison de la Transhumance joined the Domaine in 2012. As a result of this collaboration, the Domaine has also become a place of knowledge, mediation and documentation.

2. Basic information

Main promoter

Patrick Fabre

Start of the practice



Salon-de-Provence, France

Organisations involved
  • Farmer(s)/ Dairymaid(s)/ Herder(s)
  • Private landowner(s)
  • Public landowner(s)
  • Municipality(ies)
  • Various public partners, including the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur Region
Total surface of land farmed in ha
  • The Domaine du Merle covers 400 hectares.
Ownership of the land used for transhumance farming
  • Rented private land
  • Rented public land
Basic produce

Two types of products result from the transhumant activity. The first is lamb meat, marketed as “Label Rouge Agneau de Sisteron”. There are also spring lambs born in the mountains, the “tardons d’alpage”.

The second type of product is a range of outdoor clothing made from the wool of the Merinos d’Arles. This wool is considered the finest in Europe. The production of the cloths brings together a group of breeders. The clothing is marketed under the brand name “La Routo”.

FRL04 Bouches-du-Rhône
  • Main farm


  • Col des Champs

  • Col de la Cayolle


3. Situation before startup/ change/ continuation

The association “Maison de la Transhumance” was created in 1997 by cultural actors (including André Pitte, promoter of the Transhumance festival in Die) and a transhumant breeder in Provence, René Tramier. The idea was to associate breeders and transhumant shepherds with environmental actors. The initial objective was to create a museographic space open to the public in the Provencal plain of the Crau. The Crau is a hot spot of transhumant breeding. But the breeders were cautious, even distrustful, and the project could not be carried out then.

Between 1997 and 2012, the activities of the association were rather modest, despite the organisation of a founding colloquium and a traveling exhibition organised with the municipal archives of Marseille. In 2012, the association moved to the Domaine du Merle in Salon-de-Provence, where it is still located.

The director of the “Maison de la Transhumance”, Patrick Fabre, is a trained agricultural engineer. He is a sheep adviser at the Chamber of Agriculture of the Bouches-du-Rhône department. He has been involved in the “Maison de la Transhumance” since its creation in 1997.

4. Transhumance farming business description

Landscape type

The Domaine du Merle is located northeast of the Plaine de la Crau. The Crau was historically an arid pastoral grassland. At present it is composed of the dry Crau, a rare steppe-type habitat in Western Europe, and the wet Crau. The wet Crau is in the northern part, where the Domaine is located.

Animal type/ breed

The Domaine du Merle flock is composed of 1500 Merino d’Arles ewes. Rustic and gregarious, of small size, it is a formidable breed for wool. Butcher crosses also make it a good lamb. The animals have at their disposal 200 hectares of Crau hay. Crau hay is prized for its mineral content, especially calcium, magnesium and sodium. The content of these minerals is sometimes twice that of good ordinary hay. The raw cellulose is low compared to other fodder, thus increasing its digestibility.

Movement patterns

In addition to short trips, within the Domaine or in the surrounding area, the herd makes a long (250 km) trip during the warm season. This vertical transhumance by truck goes to the high mountain pastures of the Southern Alps.

Kind of cooperation

The Domain du Merle is composed of several buildings, including an older one called “the castle”. The Domaine covers 400 hectares of land. It is part of the Montpellier Institute of Agronomy and has its own budget, its own director, Pierre-Marie Bouquet, and its own operations. The Domain has twelve employees specialising in breeding and research. As the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), the Domaine is a place of study and experimentation. A great deal of work needs to be done: genetic research on the efficiency of the Merino breed, natural fences, health monitoring, economics of breeding, etc. However, the Domain’s main activity remains the training of transhumant herders.

Markets addressed/ product selling

The lamb meat is sold by the Agneau Soleil cooperative. The wool is sent to a company in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, near Avignon. The company makes plaids and blankets.

Threats & challenges

The Maison de la Transhumance’s activities depend essentially on subsidies from local authorities. The practice of transhumance is carried out within a different framework. The Domain du Merle offers the training courses provided by the Montpellier Institute of Agronomy. This activity is, therefore, long-term.

5. Decisions taken


Transhumance was launched for economic reasons (i.e., to get access to better pastures in the summer). It is also pursued for student training purposes.

Decision for the kind of animal/ specific breed

The Merinos d’Arles, a historic local breed, is well adapted to transhumance.

Decision for the production system

INRAE researchers are carrying out research to improve the production system and the efficiency of transhumance.

Diversification of income

The production of “La Routo” hiking clothes is an initiative of the Maison de la Transhumance and an innovative practice for the cultural valorization of a product. Sales are made online as well as in a few specialized stores, including the Vieux Campeur, very well-known in France. The socks are made in France, the sweaters and jackets in Biella, in Piedmont (Italy), the leggings and T-shirts in Baden-Württemberg (Germany).

Multifunctional aspects

The “Maison de la Transhumance” has offices in the Domaine. Its action is essentially oriented towards the interpretation and mediation around transhumance. It has carried out many educational and cultural activities: information about the dogs of protection, creation of paths of interpretation, edition of books, conferences … The “Maison de la Transhumance” participates in the organisation of the pastoralist film festival in Digne. Moreover, it took the initiative to establish the Grande Randonnée itinerary “La Routo”. “La Routo” follows the transhumance paths that cover 540 km between Arles, in Provence, and Borgo san Dalmazzo, in the Italian Piedmont. Launched in 2008, the idea became a reality in 2020. The association also works to safeguard the pastoral heritage and is involved in the work surrounding the registration of transhumance practices on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in France. It remains a small structure, consisting of a director, a person in charge of “La Routo” and an administrative assistant.

6. Training/ skills to establish the business

Every year, from September to September, the Domaine trains 18 to 20 transhumant shepherd students. It was the first institution in France to offer training courses for shepherds and the only one that is truly specialised in transhumance, under the name of “transhumant sheep farming”. Participants receive a professional agricultural diploma. Financed by regional funds, the Domain is an autonomous training centre, directly managed by the Montpellier School of Agronomy. Twenty years ago, there were 15 applicants for 15 places, this year (2022-2023), there were 40 applicants for 18 places and more women than men. The profile of the candidates is very heterogeneous. People without diplomas and people with high levels of education apply. However, more young people aged between 18 and 25 who are looking for work apply than before. The latter is in line with the integration policy of the Region.

7. Next steps to move on

In 2019, La Maison de la Transhumance opened a Euro-Mediterranean resource centre on transhumance (archives, photos, films, sounds, books…) at the Domaine du Merle. The association manages this documentation centre but, due to a lack of resources, it relies on three volunteers. The indexing of documents is being finalised to improve consultation. One of the association’s projects is still creating a museum space. But this objective is only possible with the financial involvement of many partners. Currently, the primary financial support for the Maison de la Transhumance is the Provence region, which participates in defining the themes of intervention. Other local authorities (commune, department, Aix-Marseille metropolis) and European programmes provide additional funding. The association itself provides resources through conferences, studies or exhibition rentals. In total, its budget is 240,000 EUR per year.

8. Quote and recommendation of the promoter

Patrick Fabre indicates that today, more and more shepherds practice transhumance only during part of the year and not all year long, nor all their life. The salaried shepherds’ activity period is longer in Provence than in other places because in Provence also a short transhumance in spring and fall is carried out. In addition, the increase in wolf predation has led to new training needs. Thus, the association has approached an agricultural high school located in Digne, in the Southern Alps.