Thousands of sheep have been trapped in the Col du Gandon in the Savoie in the south-east France at 2,000m altitude after heavy snowfalls on Friday night took shepherds by surprise. Locals managed to get emergency food supplies to the flocks on Sunday.
The 6,000 sheep and some 100 cattle got stuck in the Col du Gandon mountain pass along with their shepherds on the night of Friday 25 September after an early flurry of snow coupled with icy winds created snowdrifts of up to two metres high.
On Sunday the local town hall in Saint-Colomban-des Villards set up a crisis centre and launched an operation to feed the animals.
Along with teams of volunteers, they used snow ploughs to clear the paths and managed to get some six tonnes of fodder up the 1,900m-high col.
“They were huddled together in the snow [about 30 to 50cms]. Some animals had not eaten for 36 even 48 hours,” Pierre-Yves Bonnard, mayor of Saint-Colomban-des-Villards, told France Bleu local radio.
“The most urgent thing was to get them all fed and we managed,” he said.
“Evacuating all the animals will take us almost a week. We can manage a herd a day. So we have to feed them in the meantime.”
Taken by surprise
The last herds would usually come down from the high mountain pastures at the end of October, and the sudden snowfall took sheepfarmers and shepherds by surprise.
Bonnivard, who is also president of the USAP (Union for safeguarding pastoral and rural activities), said the situation was “exceptional”.
Around 800 sheep have been evacuated so far, and another 1,000 are due to be brought down to lower ground on Monday.
But with further snowfalls expected this week, the evacuation could take longer.
"Either the weather gets worse and we’ll have to get more emergency fodder to the animals and speed up the evacuations," Bonnivard said. "Or it improves and they will be able to scrape the ground and feed themselves. What we’re all trying to do is of course keep them all alive.”
For the moment, deaths have been limited to just a few “during birthing”.
The Col du Glandon, a high mountain pass in the Dauphiné Alps in Savoie, has often featured on the Tour de France cycle race.