A free rein for escapism
France’s legendary diversity of regional specialities isn’t confined to gastronomy. There’s an extraordinary variety of fauna as well, and for me this forms part of the country’s great riches. Here in the Alpes-Maritimes we have lynx, chamois, wolves, and wild boar (ramblers beware!). Further along the coast is the home of the famous Camargue
horses – small equines gifted with disproportionate strength and powers of endurance.
The introduction of horses is deliberate, for when I dream of escape – and who doesn’t? – it is invariably on horseback. The current chill won’t last: sooner or later, Spring will come and bring with it new ideas, prospects and … who knows? But revenons à nos moutons or, rather, to our horses.
What are our choices of four-legged friend among suitable French breeds, aside from the stalwart Camargue horse with his famous stamina? In the Pyrénées may be found two very ancient breeds of sturdy, nimble mountain ponies or small horses: the Merens at the southern end of the range (originating in the Ariège), and the similarly hardy Pottok (pronounced ‘pot-yok’) from the high pastures of
the Pays Basque. Both breeds feature in cave paintings from our hunter-gatherer past and either, with their comfortably cobb-y conformation, could provide a splendid long-distance mount for the reasonably light- to medium-weight bod. For preference, I’d opt for a Merens.
As for our packhorse – why, what could be better than a Baudet du Poitou? This is a type of donkey distinctive for its dark brown colouring and extravagantly shaggy coat. Its massive bone structure ensures great strength, and the breed possesses a gentle temperament.
Thought to be present in France since Roman times, the Baudet was valued as breeding stock when asses and mules were widely used in agriculture and for transport. In the middle ages, the Baudet’s prestige was such that it became a status symbol available only to the richer members of the aristocracy. In the first half of the twentieth century social deprivation and the spread of motorisation and automation in agriculture combined to ensure the animal’s decline. By 1977 there were only 40 pure bred Baudet du Poitou donkeys left. Thanks to a small but extremely dedicated group of breeders the Baudet was rescued from extinction in the nick of time. Although the breed remains rare: there are only about 400 purebred Baudets worldwide. Surely they could spare one or two temporarily?
Right, that’s the transport sorted. There shouldn’t be much need for supplies, as a spot of wwoofing or help-exchanging should yield the necessary. Now all that remains to be decided is where to go and when. As for that dream, it is ever-present; always unrealised … so far!
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