The region of the Landes is an immense plain situated in south-west France delimited by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, by the banks of the Adour to the South and by the ones of the Garonne to the north-east. Today it shelters the largest forest in Europe, constituted essentially of pine trees planted in the middle of the 19th century on Napoleon III’s initiative or decree.
The department of Les Landes, the second largest department in France, with an area of about a million hectares, was created in 1790 by uniting administratively a mosaic of fourteen small local pays.
The low population in Les Landes, about 300,000 people, has not changed much for the last 150 years and before becoming the greatest area of forest in France during the nineteenth century, this infertile land of moving sandy ground, becoming marshland in winter when the rivers swelled and flooded, truly merited the name of moor - la lande in French. It was known as the French Sahara. It attracted neither immigration, nor commercial traffic. There were various experiments to control the sogginess of this desolate region, together with agricultural experiments - rice, mulberry trees, tobacco, peanuts - which all failed.
My interest (as always) though is with the shepherds who had a unique way of moving around the region with their flocks. There were few ways to earn a living in this unhealthy, temperate desert, keeping flocks of sheep being a major occupation. In 1850, there were 1 million sheep; by 1862, there were 527,000, and by 1890 this had reduced to 295,000 as forest replaced the frugal moor pastures. The land was so poor that it would only support one animal per hectare. Thus, the shepherds and their flocks roamed widely over the area, moving up to 20 kms a day over communal moorlands to find sufficient grazing for the flock. At night, the sheep were penned in a sheepfold, which ensured that the animals’ manure was not dispersed unnecessarily. The manure was the main crop from the sheep, being used on the fields. The output of twenty to thirty sheep was required to adequately fertilise one hectare of the the poor, acid Landais soil.
- 1 kilogram of rye bread fed an adult, a family of eight to ten people would eat 4,000 kg rye bread a year.
- 3,200 kg flour are needed to make 4,000 kg bread.
- 4,000 kg rye grains are ground to make 3,200 kg flour.
- 4 hectares of land are needed to produce 4,000 kg rye grains.
- 60 tons of manure are needed to fertilise 4 hectares of land.
- 100 sheep will produce 60 tons of fertiliser.
- 100 hectares of moorland provide food for 100 sheep.
Stilts first appeared well before the forest, when Les Landes was an immense marshy country with the vegetation primarily consisting of grass and undergrowth. Principally, it was shepherds who lived in this landscape. The shepherds had several reasons for using stilts in order to more easily make a path through the vegetation when the shepherds travelled the long daily distances required by their sheep-tending to avoid wetting their feet in the marshes but their main use was to be able to supervise their flocks of sheep from afar.
The first records of stilts in Les Landes date from the beginning of the 18th century. However, it is not known whether using stilts was invented locally by the shepherds, or whether they were an import, say from the Flemish region of Belgium, where stilts had been used since the Middle Ages.
Landais stilts were made from two pieces of wood:
- the escasse (“leg” in landais patois) from where comes the modern French name for stilts: l’échasse; and
- the pé paouse (“foot rest” in landais patois), which is fixed on the escasse, generally giving a stilt height ranging between 90 cm and 1 m 20.
The stilt user attaches the stilt to his (or her) leg with two leather thin straps.
The use of stilts by the shepherds for work purposes disappeared gradually between the middle of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century with the establishment of the forest, which drained the marshes and eliminated the pastures, and thus the sheep and their shepherds on stilts.Today none of the original marshy Landes remains.