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Sheep solution to Dordogne's unkempt vistas

Department turns to ancient farming method to protect its picture-perfect rural views

Sheep are the new answer to problems caused in rural areas where traditional agriculture is on the decline and the landscape is reverting to scrubland and forest.

In the Dordogne, part of the world that relies heavily on tourism, untended land is increasing regarded as a problem. Today, 46% of the region is woodland, compared to just 20% in 1900. In some communes, up to 75% of the land is now covered by trees. Farmers face uncertain futures. Once open vistas are being choked by trees. And untended land increases the danger of wild fires in hot, dry summers.

Sheep are the perfect solution. They are natural heavy-duty lawnmowers, keeping the grass down and nibbling away at the undergrowth preventing new green shoots from turning into trees and bushes.

The Chamber of Agriculture in the Dordogne has turned to an ancient form of agriculture – pastoralism, in which farmers in the south east of the department take their graze their flocks on other people’s land. An experiment started in 2011 has been hailed a success and now 159 communes are involved and four associations now exist that put farmers in touch with landowners willing to have sheep on their land.

Farmer Thierry Delpech was one of the first to be involved: “The idea came from watching our sheep feeding under the walnut and the chestnut trees, which is where they were traditionally allowed to feed.

“Using cereals as fodder is increasingly difficult as prices go up all the time so it is better to use the natural supply of food all around us.

“First two flocks were involved and now there are seven. I have 500 sheep and there is plenty of land available for them as there are fewer and fewer farmers with animals. Nearly all the beef farmers have given up round here because it is too difficult to make a living. We fare a little better with sheep because we sell our lamb direct to the supermarket and the local farmer shops and people appreciate the fact that our animals live mainly on what they find in the fields.”

The programme is such a hit that more landowners have signed up than there are sheep farmers. In one village, Campagnac-les-Quercy, the commune has gone so far as to offer a barn and land to attract a young farmer to the area.

Emeline Vadrot comes from the Drôme and this opportunity meant she could fulfil her dream of running her own farm: “It’s a very positive initiative which helps us by giving us work and helps the local countryside at the same time because sheep are so good at clearing land which has been neglected.”

She now has 200 sheep, half for meat and half for milk, which is made into cheese. When they move their sheep, they walk them for 1 to 7km and are always happy for the public to participate in these mini transhumances.

The Dordogne Chamber of Agriculture is stepping up efforts to extend the scheme. Bernadette Boisvert said: “We are encouraged by the success of the pastoralism scheme. Studies have shown that moving the sheep around and giving them a varied diet is good for the animals and keeps them healthy as they are less likely to suffer from parasites.

“The advantages for the region are multiple. Local councillors are keen because it makes the countryside more attractive which is good for tourism. Landowners are keen because it helps them out. It is really something that works well, but we need more sheep farmers.”

In the north-west of the department, in the Foret de la Double, one woman has single handedly taken on the task of pastoralism by becoming a nomad shepherdess with a flock of 300 sheep, but without any land of her own.

Therese Kohler has been a shepherdess for more than 20 years. When she split from her husband she left their farm and started working on an apple orchard but missed her sheep. She suggested that the orchard would benefit from sheep grazing on it and the owner agreed. She realised she had hit on something: “First I bought 100 sheep in 2009 and started approaching people. I found land but 100 sheep was not enough to make a living. So I expanded to 200. Just recently I have been able to find so much available land that I have bought a further 300.”

The sheep are a hardy breed from the Basque country, Xaxi Ardia, which are small but can survive outside in all weathers without need for shelter other than trees in summer to provide shade. Mrs Kohler spends several hours tending her flock: “In winter I go in the middle of the day but in summer they spend the sunlight hours resting in the shade so I walk with them in the evening until nightfall and early in the morning. I often sleep out with them. I love to be with them in the outside world. One of my greatest pleasures is to watch them graze.”

She walks her flock between different plots of pastureland where she has a non-paying agreement with landowners to graze her animals. The arrangement is beneficial to both parties.

“People are very happy to have the sheep because they maintain the land at no cost and the villagers like to see the animals in the fields. Shepherds are always on the lookout for grass, so it means I have a constant supply and don’t need to resort to any other kind of foodstuff.”

It is a lifestyle Mrs Kohler loves and she is never bored as she watches the changing seasons and observes her animals. January is lambing time: “There are very few races like mine which can lamb outside in winter. It is a beautiful sight. More than 100 lambs and their mothers who graze calmly, while the little ones team up in a band and take part in crazy races, and then go to find their mothers to suckle. I watch them. I don’t intervene, I contemplate.

“The colours outside are sensational - a ray of sunshine lights up the forest and sky; the random patterns made by the flight of the wood pigeons are enchanting. Sometimes I surprise them in a meadow which is grey, there are so many birds and as I approach them they fly off and the noise made by their beating winds is extraordinary. I love this sober landscape, the white frosts in the morning, the wild wind, the pouring rain. It is difficult to describe the winter. You have to be there. I am happy I have to leave the warmth of the fireside to go out and meet this winter world.”

When she is not with her sheep, they are kept within an electric fence powered by a solar panel. She makes her living by selling her 100% natural, organic meat at local producers’ shops, at a local producer’s market in Bordeaux and direct to buyers and will send orders by post. She is also trying to find a market for her wool and has recently found someone who felts the wool to make hats.

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