The sheep that strayed

Sheep in their enclosure on the Catalan side of Mont-roig (Mont Rouch in French)
Sheep in their enclosure on the Catalan side of Mont-roig (Mont Rouch in French)

It’s hard for a shepherd when the bear pays a call. It isn’t a good time for me to visit, but when I set out I know nothing of all this.

Mustaphá has invited me to the Mont-roig estive (summer pasture) on the Catalan side of the Pyrenean watershed. This is good mountain-walking country. Mustaphá’s hut, at 2200m above sea level, is on the Pyrenean High Route (HRP). The Senda (GR11) passes through Tavascan 8km away.

I want to arrive before Mustaphá and his assistant Josep take their flock for its daily walk. So I find myself climbing through the fir trees by the light of my headtorch. After an hour and a half, the woods start to thin out and dawn begins to trickle over the ridge, but it takes me the same time again, still climbing, to reach the estive. Last night’s thunderstorms have left the grass wet, but the skies are blue.

The edge of the estive is marked by a triangular sign warning that patous (livestock guardian dogs) are at work. Beyond it, the grey walls of the glacial cirque rise vertically out of the grass and rocks. In the hollow, I can see the sheep, tightly constrained by electric netting, a more sophisticated version of the traditional electric wire fence. It looks like the kind of netting used by fishermen. Not only is it strong, but also every strand has a wire running along it, powered by a solar panel.

There are a thousand animals in this temporary sheepfold. After last night’s rain the ground is muddy: the netting will need to be moved soon. Next to it is a tatty off-white portacabin that must be on holiday from a building site.

Mont Roig cirque
Mont Roig cirque

Standing in front of the portacabin is a man I don’t know. He points out Mustaphá further up the cirque, just below the cliffs.

“He’s looking for a sheep.”

I pick out Mustaphá and then Josep who has just joined him. They are both bending down.

“They must have found it,” explains the man. “When the dogs came in with bloody noses they went out to look.”

I circumnavigate the sheep’s enclosure, surprised to see one ewe outside, apparently trying to get in. Josep stands up as I approach and walks towards me, opening his hand to show me a hair. I just have the time to take a photo before the wind blows it away. We all get down on our hands and knees.

Hair of the bear
Hair of the bear

“Never mind, there’s another on the rock,” says Mustaphá leading me to a blood-splashed stone and pointing out the evidence being left in situ for the experts. Some of the red patches are still damp.

The sheep itself is a few metres away, lying on its back in a gully. Its eyes are half-open, but its neck is a crimson mess of tendons. Something greyish, which might be its heart, is visible through the rent in its chest. Its abdomen has also been opened up to reveal more sinews and a greenish bulge. The rest of the body is intact.

It looks like a classic case. The bear must have clawed the sheep’s neck, and then started eating the most accessible innards. I’m surprised at my own reaction or – rather – lack of it: I’ve seen too many pictures on the Internet to be shocked. But I hadn’t anticipated the smell: sweet and sickly, acrid and something… disgusting, but what is it?

All three of us look at the corpse from a distance, not saying anything. By the time I have taken a few more photos the others are heading back down, still silent. Mustaphá waits for me half way back and tells me what happened. Last night when the rain began, the shepherds started herding the flock back into its electrified nest, but three sheep preferred freedom despite the best efforts of the border collies. In the middle of the night the other dogs, the patous, started barking. Mustaphá has no idea when: watches are not an important part of life in the mountains. The shepherds got up and went outside. The three patous were chasing something away, down the valley but they couldn’t see what; he points to the hillside above the path I have just used. Despite their powerful torches, they couldn’t see the three sheep either. When things had calmed down, they went back to bed and slept in longer than usual. But when the border collies came in with blood on their noses Mustaphá knew that there was a problem, so they got dressed quickly.

Looking down the valley from where the sheep died. The sheepfold and hut can be seen on top left.
Looking down the valley from where the sheep died. The sheepfold and hut can be seen on top left.

I have already noticed his footwear: cartoon character house slippers. I’m not great on cartoon characters but this one looks like a chipmunk. In any case she is wearing a pink baseball hat and a stars-and-stripes tee-shirt.

“Not mountain boots,” I comment.

“My wife’s,” he replies.

When we reach the portacabin, Mustaphá’s daughter comes out. He bends down to pick her up. At eighteen months, she is just beginning to speak: Arabic, Berber, Catalan and Spanish. She and her mother have been here for the last four days. Mustaphá introduces us.

It is the first time I have met Mustaphá’s wife but I know his story from a previous encounter. He was born on a farm in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, the youngest of six. All his siblings have stayed in Morocco, many of them near the farm, but at eighteen Mustaphá went to the coast and became a fisherman. After five years he wanted a change.

“Why did you want to come to Spain?” I asked him.

“Well, I was young. I always wanted to see different cultures, different things. Also, there is more work.”

Although he had a cousin living near here, he couldn’t obtain a visa. So, with six friends he crossed from Western Sahara to the Canary Islands in a patera. Over 100km in a small boat on the Atlantic. Like so many other migrants and refugees he was prepared to risk his life to come to Europe. Once in the Canary Islands he didn’t need a visa to come to the mainland.

He didn’t speak a word of Spanish or Catalan. But, crucially, he did speak Sheep. It took him two days to find a job and he has been working for the same family for the last twelve years. After three years he could apply for his residence papers and once he had them he could travel freely. He started going back to his home village on holiday and met his future wife.

“What most surprised me,” Mustaphá insisted, “was how good people were. Very welcoming. I lived in my boss’s house and they treated me like a son. That’s very special.”

“In summer we took the flock to the mountains. There were no grants at the start. I was in the mountains alone with my dog for three-and-a-half, four months.” They didn’t have any days off. When Mustaphá weighed himself at the end of his first season, he had lost 14kg.

“Several times [in the early years], I saw a bear eating a sheep. One night I heard the flock making a lot of noise. I was sleeping in the tent. The bear was eating a sheep!”

“How far away was it?” I asked.

“Fifty metres. Eating the sheep. Agh! Well, I shut the tent up and that was that. I left him eating. Just like that.”

“Did you have a dog?”

“Yes, a dog for herding. Now I’ve two for protection. Last year, a bear came and the patou didn’t let him approach the sheep.”

One of Mustapha's patous (Pyrenean Mountain dogs) coming to investigate me. Above the Pleta del Prat, earlier this summer.
One of Mustapha’s patous (Pyrenean Mountain dogs) coming to investigate me. Above the Pleta del Prat, earlier this summer.

Working conditions have improved dramatically in the last four years. There are now grants which mean that he has two portacabins brought in by helicopter each summer (the other is at the Col de Ventolau). He also has an assistant and a day off each week. For the farmer too, it is all profit. In summer the wages, the dogs, the fencing and the huts are all paid for by PirosLife, an organisation sponsored by the EU LIFE project.

And there’s the rub. The grants are designed to encourage acceptance of the brown bears whose numbers have from a low of five in 1995 to about fifty now. As it happens, Goiat, the bear released near here, promptly headed north and hasn’t been seen here again. But othere bears have.

The idea of corralling the sheep at night is also new here. As in France, previously they were allowed to roam over a large area, with minimal control.

“Last year worked out as the best year ever,” Mustaphá told me. “The best year as far as bear attacks and other losses were concerned. There were only four sheep missing… very few.”

“Before you used the electric netting, how many sheep did you lose each year?”

“About thirty.”

“But not all to the bears.”

“No, no. An old one, very old would die. Another gets ill and I don’t react before she dies. Another eaten by the bears…” Some simply disappeared.

As soon as he arrived, Mustaphá started learning Catalan and Spanish. Down in the valley for the winter, he was working on the farm in the day, but when he returned to his room he had his nose in a textbook.

“I got up at six and studied until nine before work. In the evening, after eating, I studied. I studied until I fell asleep. Next morning, the same.”

And in his spare time, he went back to the mountains. He has run the Porta del Cel circuit three times, winning it in 2014 with a time of 13 hours 20 minutes. To put this into perspective, I walked the same circuit with friends in 2018. It took us six days.

Estany de Sotllo, between the Refuge du Pinet and Valferrera on the Porta del Cel (Sky's Door) Trek
Estany de Sotllo, between the Refuge du Pinet and Valferrera on the Porta del Cel (Sky’s Door) Trek

Back in the estive, after Mustaphá has introduced me to his family, he apologises and runs off down the valley. It is 2.5km to the nearest point with a phone signal and he needs to tell the authorities about the attack so that an official can perform an autopsy. The farmer will then receive compensation.

I look back towards where the sheep is lying. The first vultures are arriving. They circle, then plunge.

“There were a couple there earlier,” Josep tells me, “but we chased them away. I’ll bring a sheet.”

I go on ahead. I’m a little anxious because there are a dozen birds, with more diving down. I’m a few paces away when those on the ground take to the air, flapping so near my head that I can feel the downdraft. Their wings arch over me: griffon vultures have a wingspan of 2.5m.

Griffon vulture flying away
Griffon vulture flying away

Although it has only taken me ten minutes to get here, the corpse has been transformed. The rib cage is now completely empty and the flesh on the hind legs has also been eaten. And then there is a green mess where the lower abdomen used to be: the sheep’s last supper slopping out of its punctured rumen. The smell has become a stench, and now I can identify it: a combination of digestive juices – the smell of sick – and rotting grass. I move upwind.

Josep arrives a quarter of an hour later with some sacking, which we weigh down with stones. The other sheep have now left the enclosure and are heading uphill. Led by a compact triangular wedge of fifty adventurers forging ahead, six threads – lines of sheep nose to tail – trail diligently behind them. Like a comet.

The brothers get ready to follow them. In theory, the bear won’t try again before dusk.

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