A Trail of Sheep Bells

During our first visit to the French Pyrenees last year, I noticed the magical tinkling of sheep bells in the distance whenever we stopped the car in a rural area or went for a hike. At times it sounded as if someone were playing an avant-garde xylophone.

Now that there is so much more wind in the trees on our property since the clearcut nextdoor, I got the idea to hang sheep bells in our forest. Then when the wind blows, it will sound like a distant flock of sheep in the Pyrenees.

It became my mission on our most recent trip to the same region to find some sheep bells to bring back. Of course, some people have said, “Well, you know you can get them on eBay…” Bah! The very idea! But how to find them?

Maybe These Guys Would Know…

I wasn’t quick-witted enough to ask these shepherds where one could buy them when their flock took over the trail in the Lys Valley near Bagneres-du-Luchon and we climbed up the hillside to allow them past. Maybe because they didn’t have any bells on their sheep.

However, a search on Ecosia produced the marvelous fact that there exists a sheep bell museum in France.  A museum devoted to the history and manufacture of sheep & cow bells, as well as church bells & town hall bells. Really, there is! There is a museum for everything in France. It is near a town called Lamalou-les-Bains, a town about 90 minutes north of where we were staying. So one morning we set out.

Lamalou-les-Bains

Old promotional poster for the baths at Lamalou-les-BainsThe terrain & vegetation on the way north of Beziers is much like southern California, so too dry for my liking, but when we got to Lamalou-les-Bains, it turned out to be a completely lovely spa town, with lots of trees and a river running through it. Lively restaurants line the main street. A farmers’ market was in full swing. (I enjoyed it so much I didn’t think to take photos — sorry.)

The town is full of mineral baths and clinics, and people “taking the waters” for their various ills. At lunch, we struck up a conversation with a French couple from Brittany at the table next to us, who had an adorable and very well-behaved dachshund named Gascon at their feet. They have been coming to Lamalou for four years in a row, for treatment for her arthritis or rheumatism. She said the treatments really improved her condition and she no longer needed medication. The treatments are mostly covered by the French national health, though they had to cover the costs of their stay and transport, etc.

Musée de la Cloche et de la Sonnaille

different stages in the making of large bells
Different stages in the making of large bells.

After an excellent and healthy lunch there, we backtracked to the village of Hérépian, and found the museum directly. This is a very modern and professional museum, not some eccentric bell-fancier’s collection in a shopfront. Not surprisingly, we were the only visitors.

  • photographic display of bell-making
    A wall showing photos of bell-making.
French and Braille signage in museum
Notice that the illustration is also raised, so that blind museum goers can appreciate them.

We were handed English cheatsheets, which was helpful since all the display descriptions were in French and Braille only, but they only provided a general overview of the museum, not translations of each exhibit description.

Thus we missed out on a lot of information. However, we came away with more knowledge of the manufacture and use of sheep bells and church bells than we had going in.

The Sound of Home to a Sheep

bell around a sheep's neck
The wooden collar is the traditional way a bell is hung on the sheep.

For example, shepherds put a particular bell on the lead sheep, so everybody knows where the flock is headed. When that lead sheep dies, the bell is passed on to the next leader of the flock. And when she or he dies, it is passed on again. Thus it is believed that there is a sort of genetic memory within that flock, passed down from generations, associating the sound of that particular bell with the leader of the flock, or perhaps the direction they should be going, or where safety lies.

By having bells with different pitches on some of the other sheep, a shepherd can geolocate the parameters of the flock, even when he or she is bedded down for the night. Thus they can keep tabs on their charges in the dark.

Bronze sheep bells
A simple, utilitarian form, designed to take a lot of abuse.

I was able to buy a few bona fide Pyrenean sheep bells for the forest. Now, I am the first to admit that sheep bells are not very exciting to look at. No filigree or polished fine form. But I wasn’t buying them to look at them, but to listen to them chinkle randomly in the wind. (And yes, I just made up that word.)

Where is the Shepherds’R’Us?

I wanted a few more, especially if I could find bigger, deeper-sounding ones. One of the learning experiences of travel is figuring out how other countries categorize things. How do you search for “feedstore” in French?  Would a hardware store have sheep bells? What’s the term for “hardware store” in French? Is there a “Shepherds R Us” franchise somewhere?

Sheep bell in tree
A tinkling of the Pyrenees in our woods.

More online research and help from an expat forum turned up that one place to find them was at hunting and fishing supply stores. I would never have thought of looking there. Apparently they are used on hunting dogs.

So I bought a few more from such a store, and, now that we are back home, I’m going to see how high up I can tie them in the trees.

No doubt it will puzzle the neighbors.

4 Replies to “A Trail of Sheep Bells

    1. They were very confused when they came upon us on the trail. They didn’t know what to do and there was an ovine pile-up. Once we got out of the way, the dam broke and sheep-flow recommenced. The shepherds were bringing them down from higher pastures for the night. When we got back down from our hike, they were all penned in a temporary corral at the start out the trail. A storm was coming, and I thought it was going to be a scary night for them, but I guess they must be used to weather.

  1. Your sheep bell story was very funny. We have been collecting things too – like quirky friends. You just got first prize. I would really love to hear all the bells when there was a wind in your trees. I considered getting some myself, but the neighbors are too close. Aren’t your trees really tall? Do you have any telephone pole repairmen friends? Bill, are you up for this?

    Lots of love
    B and K

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