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Part 1 – Livestock Breeds
The first endangered breed I encountered was quite by chance. My family was hiking through Landes de Cojoux park in Brittany to see a 5,000 year-old megalithic site with stone alignments. As the hike progressed, several equines appeared in the distance. As we drew closer to a fenced off area we noticed a sign that told us that the animals were used as part of a brush control program in the park. The two horses in the group were rare Mulassier mares and other animal was a Poitevin mule – a specific cross of a Mulassier mare and a Poitou jack. Poitevin mules have always been considered a national treasure of France and one of the greatest draft animals in all of Europe. Originating in the south of France in the Poitou region, the Mulassier and Poitou breeds were created exclusively for the production of mules that were once sold for great sums of money until motorized vehicles became the primary mode of transport in Europe. Because the Mulassier was not as refined as other draft breeds, these horses still come in a wide variety of colors and often have primitive markings such as dorsal stripes or zebra markings on their legs. Although there are approximately 60-70 purebred Poitous in the United States, there are perhaps only 2-3 Mulassiers in the country. The Mulassier population in Europe is still small (at less than 400), but has been increasing in recent years as the breed’s popularity grows. The global population of Poitous is somewhat better at more than 2,500 registered purebreds.
As we continued our travels, we encountered other rare equines at the French National Stable in Hennebont, Brittany. The French have an interesting approach to preserving their horse breeds through the use of a national stable system first created under Louis XIV in 1665 to provide quality horses for the king’s army. The system was re-vamped under Napoleon I in 1833 and to this day remains an active part of supporting the horse industry in France. There are currently 20 stud farms with approximately 800 studs (both horses and donkeys) throughout the country. In Hennebont one of the primary breeding programs is for the Trait Breton draft horse. This hefty breed is known for its gentle disposition, smooth gait and intelligence. They were often used to plow valuable perennial crop fields, such as artichokes, because they had good focus and would not drift out of the rows and damage plants. The Breton descends from horses that were kept and ridden by the ancient Celts. These horses, known as the Bidet Breton in the Middle Ages, were highly sought after war horses. Later in history, the breed was infused with larger horse breeds to create a more powerful draft animal. At Hennebont we saw eight stallions and were able to attend a riding demonstration at the facility. Despite their size, in the ring the Bretons moved with the grace of a dressage horse and were a delight to see in action. For more information on the National Stable Program, visit www.haras-nationaux.fr. (In case you do not speak French, click on the British flag at the bottom of the page to translate some of the pages into English.)
Eager to see more French breeds, I followed up on a lead from some friend who told me of a historic farm in the region that was dedicated to the conservation of traditional crops and animal breeds created in Brittany and Normandy. The facility, known as the Écomusée du Pays de Rennes (in English it is the Eco-museum of the Country of Rennes), is located on the outskirts of the regional capital city of Rennes. Opened in 1994, the facility sits on a historic farm property that still has many of the original farm buildings, some dating back to the 14th century. The Écomusée utilizes many of the historic structures as a museum dedicated to educating the public about historic crop and animal production in the region.
We journeyed to the facility and soon came upon the smallest sheep we had ever seen. At first we thought we were looking at a flock of lambs until a closer look proved them to be tiny adult sheep. These diminutive animals stood no taller than our kneecaps! The breed is known as the Ouessant sheep and it originates from the small island of Ouessant that is located on the west coast of Brittany at the mouth of the English Channel. These sheep are among the smallest known sheep in the world standing no more than 20 inches at the shoulder. In the early 20th century, thanks to the efforts of the Museum of Natural History in Paris and several Lords in Brittany, the breed was preserved and saved from being “improved” from the introduction of other breed genetics into the population. These animals were historically selected to be small so that they could more easily survive on the scarce forage of the island’s shoreline, dunes, and marshes. Their size made for easy handling for the women on the island who often stayed to tend the farms as the men were out to sea for most of the year. The sheep were used for both meat and wool production and were often used as a tasty treat for sailors that visited the island. The breed produces 2.25 - 4 pounds of fleece from adults.
According to the Écomusée, there are approximately 5,000 Ouessants remaining in France and a large population has developed in the Netherlands as well. Most of these sheep are black but occasionally white individuals will occur.
In the pen across from the Ouessant flock, we found three types of sheep including the Bleu de Maine, the Avrachin, and the Belle-île. The Bleu de Maine is a very distinctive breed sporting a clean head that is deep slate blue in color. Coupled with large bright eyes, the faces of these sheep are striking to look at. The origins of the Bleu de Maine date back to the 19th century when the breed was created from a cross of Leicester Longwool, Wensleydale, and the now extinct Choletais sheep of France. The breed became a very popular wool breed in France, especially in Brittany. Rams are often used to create improved carcass lambs in commercial flocks.
The Avrachin sheep breed is predominantly a meat breed developed in the 19th century from several English breeds including the Dishley, Kent, and Southdown. This polled breed is well-adapted to coastal environments and will usually produce twins or triplets at lambing.
The Belle-île sheep is another primitive sheep breed from Brittany that is known for prolificy, producing 2-3 offspring per lambing. They can have black or white fleeces and their faces can be black, white, or mottled.
The museum estimates that in 2006 there were 3,000 purebred Bleu de Maine ewes in the population, which is predominantly in France and the United Kingdom. They also estimated that there were approximately 2000 Avranchin ewes and less than 200 Belle-île ewes left. They have a long-term commitment to these traditional breeds and incorporate them in to the sustainable production of heirloom fruit and vegetables. These sheep, in particular the Ouessant, are often called upon to help maintain the facility’s sprawling apple orchards, gleaning leftover crops in fields that have been harvested.
Among the flocks of sheep we spotted a donkey guarding several Belle-île rams. He belonged to a Norman breed known as the Cotentin. These small gentle donkeys were historically used to take milk to market until motorized transport took the job over. In 1997, the French Ministry of Agriculture officially recognized the breed and included Cotentin jacks in the National Stable Breeding Program. The animals are carefully bred and monitored since the closing of the studbook in 2001. By six months of age, all animals are inspected, micro-chipped, and documented by an approved veterinarian so they can be included in the studbook. As of 2006, there were 700 purebred females within France.
As we continued with our visit to the Écomusée we came upon pens containing two breeds of pig from Brittany. The first was the Blanc de l’Ouest (White of the West) which was quickly recognized by my husband as the breed his grandmother kept on her farm in the north Brittany when he was a child. He recounted how it was his job to cook for and feed the pigs daily. Their meals predominantly consisted of potatoes, but included other vegetables and food items that were no longer fit for the family. After stewing over the fire for many hours in a large cast iron cauldron, these scraps provided a feast for the pigs. No food ever went to waste on their farm so long as they had their pigs.
The Blanc de l’Ouest has origins dating to the ancient pigs the Celts kept in the region. It is a breed that is particularly suited to outdoor environments for the production of cured meats and charcuterie. It is a poorly suited breed for commercial production. They have light colored flesh and their fat lends great flavor to the products created from them.
A couple of colorful pigs next caught our attention and they turned out to be the Bayeux breed from the Calvados region of Normandy. The old Norman breed of hog was crossed with English Berkshires in the 19th century to create the Bayeux. This is another hog well-suited for outdoor production and is adapted to have a large proportion of its diet consist of milk by-products mixed with cereals. As a result, the meat of the Bayeux is of high quality and subtle taste, and was famous for use in the production of traditional Normand wood-smoked ham.
The last of the livestock breeds we encountered was the chèvre des Fossés or “ditch goat.” These goats were once widely found in both Brittany and Normandy, and were used to keep ditches on the sides of the roads and on orchard slopes clear of weeds and brush. Poor rural families valued the goats for milk to help feed nursing children during lean times. Because they were not a heavily selected or refined breed, they can still be found in a multitude of colors but all have relatively long hair. Their pelts were utilized to create colorful coats used to keep peasants warm through the cold and wet winters of the region.
The term terroir (derived from the French word terre meaning “land”) is most often lent to describe the influence of land and climate on particular food products, such as wine and cheese. As we delve deeper into the history and purpose of these fascinating breeds, it is clear that the historic breeds in France can be similarly defined by their terroir. They are clearly creatures created through influence of the countryside, but beyond that, by the unique rural culture and, of course, the superb cuisine of France.
In the next issue, we will cover French cattle and poultry breeds including chickens, ducks, and geese. Conservation of breeds is a global initiative and it is exciting to see how other countries are facing some of the same issues of conservation that ALBC and its members regularly face. For more information about these breeds, contact Jeannette Beranger, email@example.com or call (919) 542-5704.