The female skateboarder who became an Alpine shepherdess
There’s nobody in sight from this alpage vantage point. High up in the mountains of the Savoie in the French Alps, days or weeks can pass without seeing another human. All Lois Pendlebury has for company is her flock of 1,200 Merino d’Arles lambs and her two Border Collie sheepdogs and pack of guardian dogs, who help her take care of them. Each day provides a new challenge and a new reason to marvel at the wonder of the natural world around her.
For Lois, there’s no comparison to this way of life, which is captured beautifully in the short film La Bergère (The Shepherdess). Filmmaker Percy Dean first met Lois back in the early 2000s, when she was a fearless young skateboarder hailing from Bradford. Lois rose up skating across North West England with the LBP (Liverpool, Bradford Preston) crew and eventually became one of the best skateboarders of her generation.
“There was quite a tight group of skaters in the North West and every time I’d go skate in Leeds or Bradford, Lois would be there,” Percy remembers, who was then editor of Document Skateboard Magazine. “It was at a time when there wasn’t a big female skateboard contingent. It was awful, really, it was just guys. The odd girl who showed their face would stand out. Lois was one of the few with the strength to step outside the boundaries of her gender and do something not many other girls were doing. That strength to not give a fuck about what anyone else thinks, I guess that’s what’s carried her through to where she is now.”
Lois put in the work to become an immensely talented skateboarder in an era before opportunities began to open up for female skateboarders. After moving to London, eventually her injuries caught up with her and she had to give up skateboarding for good. Working in agriculture was never Lois’ plan but in 2020 she embarked on a drastic career change. After Covid struck and a job she had planned was cancelled, she went to spend time with a friend working as a shepherd in the Alpage.
“When I got there, I was just so curious about everything that was going on,” Lois remembers. “It’s intriguing, I had so many questions and just felt really suited to that way of life. Now I’ve done four seasons. It’s so difficult the first couple of years, it’s a real struggle but it’s worth it. It’s incredibly gratifying to see your progression, too.”
Around May each year, lambs from Provence in the South of France arrive in Bourg-Saint-Maurice in the foothills of the Alps. From here, Lois takes a flock of 1,200 lambs up into the mountain pastures of the Savoie. With her two highly trained sheepdogs and pack of guardian dogs who protect the flock, she climbs four-to-five hours to their first grazing spot. Over the next five months, until the season ends around November, she’ll take the flock gradually higher, until they’re up above the tree-line, feasting from the high grass that sprouts last.
“Every day there’s a moment where you’re just in awe,” Lois explains. “The lifestyle is so peaceful and rewarding and the mountains are so beautiful. You can just look out and the views leave you without words. The connection you have with the dogs is special, too. They’re sensitive and intelligent creatures. You develop a relationship with them where you literally converse with them and tell them to do things and they do them. You have this understanding between yourselves.”
“Doing meaningful work makes a difference,” Lois continues. “Whether it’s shepherding or something else, producing food is important. We need to rediscover that connection with the rhythms of nature and where our food comes from. It makes people happier and more appreciative of the process that goes into feeding ourselves – and the world.”
When Percy heard about Lois’ move into the mountains and into shepherding, it caught his imagination. “I’ve always been attracted to wild spaces and the people who live there,” Percy explains. “I wanted to tell a story about Lois’ strength as a person to do what she does. I aspire to live a life like that but I don’t think I could do it. Being out there alone, with just your own thoughts and the dogs and sheep who rely on you every day. To thrive in that environment is admirable and I find it aspirational. Lois is doing something that not many of us could do, which relies on some internal strength that not all of us have got.”
Lois’ closest neighbour is Jean-Michel, a cow farmer who lives three-to-four kilometres away. He lets her use the shower in his farmhouse and Lois joins the family for dinner from time-to-time. Lois argues that she’s much less isolated than people imagine: her car is a 20-minute walk away and it’s a 45-minute drive into town. While many, like Percy, see what Lois is doing as remarkable, she doesn’t think so. Lois explains that more women work in agriculture than people imagine, even though few work alone in shepherding.
“I’m strong in some aspects of my life and I can find self-belief in what I have accomplished through my experience of shepherding,” Lois reflects. “You’re content when you put the sheep in the park and go to seek some comfort in the cabin at the end of the day. The fact that you’re outside, you’re getting plenty of vitamin D, you’re using your body, you’re generating endorphins and you’re satisfied with the work that you’ve done. That brings the positivity more so than being alone.”
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