Why does France give a gift of three cows to Spain every year?

Esme Fox
Esme Fox - [email protected]
Why does France give a gift of three cows to Spain every year?
The oldest treaty in the world sees France give three cows to Spain. Photo: PASCAL PAVANI / AFP

Every year on the 13th of July in a small enclave of the Pyrenees, an ancient ceremony takes place in which a village in France gives three cows to its neighbours in Spain.


The ceremony of the Treaty of the Three Cows takes place on the border between France and Spain, somewhere between the Roncal valley in Navarre, Spain and the Baretous valley in Bearne, France, along the Ernaz pass, the place where the Stone of San Martín once stood.

This is all down to one of the oldest international treaties in Europe. No one knows exactly when the practice started, although historians know that in 1375 a ruling was signed in order to pacify the villagers from the two valleys who were in conflict with each other. In this ruling, it stated that the gifting of the cows had been going on long before this date.  

In fact, historians believe that this means it could be the oldest treaty in the world still in force today. The only treated they know of that existed before 1375 is the Anglo-Portuguese treaty of 1373, signed by King Edward III of England and King Ferdinand I of Portugal.

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As the agreement of the cows predated this, it is believed to be much older. According to some experts, the treaty was created to put an end to some disputes between shepherds from Roncal and Baretones, who could not agree on which herds should enjoy the pastures and fresh water of the area.

Other historians, however, believe this was just a temporary measure that came about later on. They say that the real reason for the treaty came about as a resolution after a dispute in the Pyrenees over the invasion of the Cimbrios and Baretonenses in the year 125. The Cimbrios invaded Europe and when they reached the Pyrenees and with the help of the Barettones, they punished the four towns of Isaba, Urzainqui, Uztároz and Garde, which are the ones who benefit from the tribute today.  


In 2011 the Government of Navarre decided to declare this act as an Asset of Intangible Cultural Interest.

On July 13th each year, the mayors of the two areas meet on the mountain pass for the exchange of the cows and sign that they will do so again the following year.

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The mayors of Roncal dress in traditional costumes of black cloaks and hats with white collars, while the mayors of the Baretous Valley wear classic French berets and drape themselves in the tricolour flag.

The French mayors chant "Pax avant, pax avant, pax avant" (Peace hereafter) and the villagers from the neighbouring valley echo back their words.  

Next, a vet is brought in to examine the cows to make sure they are free from illnesses, wounds or blemishes. The cows must be two years old, have the same light-coloured coats and have grown horns.


Once the three best cows have been selected, the agreement is signed once more. The Spanish towns along the border, Isaba, Urzainqui, Uztároz and Garde take it in turns to be the ones to receive the cows.

So far a recorded total 1,938 cows have been sent to Spain, but nowadays a more modern reparation has been devised.  

Once selected by the villages, the cows now return to their country of origin and the tribute is paid in the equivalent number of Euros, according to their market value. 

The treaty may have been modernised, but its ancient practice still lives on today. 


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