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Viewed from the Pyrenean foothills that rise up behind it, the Barétous valley in summer is a study in rustic tranquility. Beneath me in this little corner of southwestern France the landscape rolls lazily away, a light mist settling in its green patchwork hollows, wreathing plump old trees and far-flung clusters of slate and whitewash. Besides the distant bleats, moos and clunking of neck bells generated by his animals, there isn’t a manmade sound to be heard.

It’s a fitting backdrop for what can claim to be the world’s most durable peace treaty – an unbroken 638-year accord between the French Barétounais and the Basque Spaniards of the Roncal valley, just over the mountains. Yet the pact dates from an age when cross-border cooperation, or lack of it, was a matter of life and death. Death, mainly, in its grisliest, most medieval forms.

‘My life is all about grass and water,’ says Jean-Marc Salis, scratching his stubble in the well-worn threshold of the shepherd’s cottage that is his summer home, ‘and so was all that trouble back in the 14th century.’ We’ve left the misty foothills and climbed into a pin-sharp mountain morning up near the Pyrenean peaks of Arlas and Anie. Jean-Marc has been up on these tilted, boulder-strewn pastures since 5am, milking 250 sheep in the company of a trainee shepherd from Brittany. His family have been farmers in the Barétous for six generations, but Jean-Marc’s affinity goes back more than half a millennium.

Just across the green ridge above, a few cloven-hoofsteps inside Spain, his flock is browsing the verdant spring where, one summer dawn in 1373, a Roncal cowherd found a Barétounais counterpart from the wrong side of the border grazing his own animals. A frank exchange of views ended with the Frenchman lying dead on the mountainside, inciting a cycle of massacre and counter-massacre. In two years, 600 villagers from both sides were killed. ‘The old churches here are like fortresses,’ Jean-Marc says. ‘When the Spanish came down we locked ourselves inside.’

It would be pleasing to record that both sides took stock of the tragic futility and came to their senses, but the Barétounais were only obliged to seek a truce after a brutal defeat at the hands of their Basque neighbours, the Roncales. The victors proved magnanimous, drawing up a treaty in which the Barétounais would be granted seasonal grazing rights near their water spring in exchange for an appropriate annual tribute. At 11am on 13 July 1375, dignitaries and eminent farmers from both valleys met atop the 6,500ft Col de la Pierre St-Martin mountain pass, laid their hands together on the boundary stone and declared their peaceful intent. Then the Spanish delegation waded into cattle that the French had brought with them, and selected ‘three cows with good teeth, hide and horns’ for a feast. And so began what is variously known as ‘la junta’, ‘la traité’ and the Tribute of the Three Cows, an event that’s been held every 13 July since – except in 1944, when the Nazis suspected that the French were plotting to nip over the border en masse.

‘These days farming up here is more sheep than cattle,’ says Jean-Marc, though the paddock before him is noisily alive with an Old MacDonald mix: half a dozen excitable pigs being fattened for the family Christmas, scuttling hens and 40 stolid examples of the horned, bell-necked blonde d’Aquitaine cow that has been the ubiquitous local breed since well before that first tribute. ‘But we absolutely couldn’t survive without la traité. Our farms are small and we don’t have enough land to graze livestock all year. I bring my animals up here in July and that allows my pasture back in the valley to recover enough to make hay for the winter.’

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