Thursday, 2 October 2014

Sheep Farming in France

Sheep farms in France are often small, with no more than 200 animals in a flock, but flocks of twice that size are more common on lowland farms, and flocks of 1000 are not unknown. Mostly the farmer is working on his/her own. There are around 5 million head of breeding ewes in France, of which a quarter are dairy ewes. French people consume an average of 3.4 kg of lamb meat per year and the most popular cut is the leg (Fr. gigot).

A small flock in the Vienne, a major sheep producing area where farms remain largely traditional.
The sheep usually spend the spring, summer and autumn on pasture. They may or may not be shedded in the winter and fed a supplement (usually for a couple of months while lambing or in the final weeks of fattening prior to market). Dairy herds are more likely to be kept mainly indoors. The stocking rate is generally lower than one beast per hectare because the farms expect to be self-sufficient in grass and fodder.

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.
Since 2010 radio frequency identification tags (RFID) have been compulsory for sheep and goats in France. The idea is that it allows swift identification of disease sources in the case of an outbreak. The tags hold a minimum of information such as transport permits at all times, but can be used to monitor all sorts of husbandry related things such as feed management.

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.


  1. Stop bleeting, it had to be done!
    Actually a very interesting post...
    but, how does a consumer know if the lamb they are buying comes from a small producer?
    In the UK, Pauline et moi used to get all our meat from the Leeds Farmers Market...
    a monthly occurrence then with an occasional drift in and out of experimental fortnightly...
    there we'd buy directly from producers, who....
    like many of the small farmers around here...
    had "value added" products as well.
    Locally, I know which producers to go to for some goat...
    and wabbitt...
    including value added products...
    but where for sheepz?

  2. Our neighbout keeps a few sheep around his étang as lawnmowers, also for the odd lamb for sale. Then there are some funny little brown sheep on the edge of Abilly that I believe are Ouessants (if I've spelled it right). In both cases they're more of a hobby than anything. Pauline

  3. Very interesting and informative post Susan. Thank you. My father was born on a sheep property in northern NSW. They had 10 000 sheep on 2,500 acres (I think). I was most amused, when I first arrived in France, to see the sheep "hanging off" the cliffs in the Pyrenees. We have also often cycled in the Baie de Somme amnong the sheep on the salt marshes. Their meat "agneau de prés salés" is highly sought after but I'm not that keen. The best lamb I have ever tasted (both in Australia and France) comes from an area called "la montagne noire" near Carcassonne. I still regret not having bought lamb cutlets to take away with us!

  4. Tim: Ask your butcher where his lamb comes from. It will be local. Ours comes from the Brenne.

    PG: thank you for that snippet of info about the sheep at Abilly.

    Fraussie: Best lamb I ever had was from the Leicestershire producer who came to my local farmers market in London. I've had saltmarsh lamb at Rye on the south coast of England. Nice, but not quite sure what the fuss is about.