A small flock in the Vienne, a major sheep producing area where farms remain largely traditional.
The sheep are usually crossbreeds using various combinations of Berrichon de Cher, Ile de France, Vendéen, Texel, Charollais, Suffolk and Chamois for meat, whereas pure bred Lacaune are the most popular for milk. Wool is not a significant market. The main lambing season is February to April (winter lambing) but about half of producers aim to have about a quarter of their ewes lamb in the autumn (September to January) and it is now common to aim for lambs throughout the year (known as aseasonal lambing). The autumn lambs can be sold in the first half of the year, when prices are higher (eg at Easter time). Lambs are sold once they reach 30 - 40 kg, from 2-3 months old and no older than 10 months.
Solognot sheep (a heritage breed) in the Brenne.
The tags are seen by some mountain farmers with very small herds as expensive and double handling (there is already a manual tag and record book system in place). About a quarter of farmers refuse to use RFID, and the requirement to do so is currently being challenged in the courts. There is considerable resentment that cattle and pigs do not have to be RFID tagged. Earlier this year sheep farmers 'invaded' the Louvre to protest about the changes to subsidies which they argue favour industrial style farming and penalise the small traditional farmer. Certain subsidies are dependent on the use of RFID tags, and my impression is that the current system of subsidies and tax does indeed favour the larger operators over the small. Industrialised production, where lambs are fattened indoors not on pasture, lambing occurs throughout the year and flocks are getting larger whilst the industry as a whole is shrinking seems to be the trend. Certainly the national flock has declined by half in the last decade, consumption of lamb is down by a third and the price to the consumer has doubled.
I've written before on the blog about French lamb meat -- here about affordable French lamb and a campaign to improve the market for Lacaune lambs (the breed whose milk is used in Rocquefort cheese); and here about lamb from traditional bocage pasture.
Comparison with Australia: there are 75 million head of sheep (45 million breeding ewes) in Australia, but the industry here has declined greatly from its peak in the 1950s. Once, Australia was said to 'ride on the sheep's back' economically, but now cattle, cereals (especially wheat), dairy, market gardening and orchards all outstrip sheep production. Nevertheless, Australia still produces about a quarter of the world's raw wool and it is 3% of Australian exports, reknowned for its extremely high quality. Australians are amongst the biggest consumers of lamb in the world (spending AUD$2 billion a year on lamb and consuming 10 kg per head per year) and the country is the largest exporter of mutton and live sheep, and the second largest exporter of lamb. The sheep meat industry is worth about AUD$4 billion and a third of all farms are involved in sheep production. Sheep dairies are almost non-existant.
Sheep are mainly grazed on native grassland, often in the semi-arid areas of the country, where sheep farms are known as 'stations'. The principal wool breed is the merino, accounting for three-quarters of the national flock. When producing sheep for meat, merinos crossed with border leicester are favoured.
For an insight into the management of an Australian sheep farm, see the Murnong Farming website. The farm is run by my cousin. I've written about typical Australian sheep farming country on the blog before here.