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Sheep help keep Dordogne vistas pretty

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, a part of France that relies heavily on tourism, untended land is increasingly 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 flocks to graze 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 directly to the supermarket and the local farm 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-lès-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 that has been neglected.”

She now has 200 sheep, half for meat and half for milk, which is made into brebis (sheep’s milk cheese).
When they move their sheep, they walk them for up 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. 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 northwest of the department, in La Forêt 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.

Thérèse 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.
Ms 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.
“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 Ms Kohler loves and she is never bored as she watches the changing seasons and observes her animals. The lambs were born in the winter and now make up part of the flock: “Every morning I let them into a meadow together, so that some can eat on the edge of the woodland and others can stay close to their little ones. I spend my time watching, understanding and looking after them. I intervene as little as possible.

I have confidence in them.

“There are always stories to tell. Funny ones like the castrated male who adopted a little black lamb whose mother wasn’t well and so they looked after the little one together. Or a sheep with plenty of milk who took on a twin whose mother could only cope with one lamb. Sometimes a mother has suffered while giving birth and she will leave her little one.
“Then I have to react quickly, catch the mother and attach her to a tree and force her to stay with her lamb and to get to know it. It has to be done quickly because a ewe forgets quickly, but if she is kept with her lamb it will just take an hour for bonding to take place.

“Sometimes you have to raise a lamb with a bottle and I have friends who take on the task. But these lambs will always be different and with all the care in the world they will never have the same social comportment because the ewe not only feeds her lamb but educates it as well.”

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 recently found someone who felts the wool to make hats.

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