Vasles in Deux-Sevres is doing its bit for European relations, by way of sheep, writes Beryl Brennan.
Mouton Village occupies a large part of the village, with its 1,600 human inhabitants greatly outnumbered by their four-legged woolly compatriots.
The commune has around 100 sheep farmers and 18,000 breeding ewes at any one time, producing lambs and associated products; it is the main industry and income provider for the area.
It all started back in 1990, a bad year for sheep; newspapers spoke of the ‘sheep war’; English lamb was being imported into France, and the price of French lamb dropped.
The then Mayor of Vasles, M Parnaudeau, said: "I decided to put into effect an idea I had been mulling over for some years. The original concept was to promote sheep, develop the derivative products, and start a breeding programme for races threatened with extinction, whether they were for meat, milk or wool - a 'Garden of Sheep' – but to attract tourists."
First, a covered sheep market was built, completed by the end of 1990, where farmers from Poitou could bring their animals and trade.
The town centre was renovated in 1992 to make it more welcoming to visitors, and in 1993 the Jardin des Agneaux, a wooded park of 15 acres, was opened. Although many of the 23 different breeds of sheep which roam in separate enclosures in the Jardin were purchased in France, some were sourced from their country of origin.
The Directice of Mouton Village, Mlle Flise Blanchard said: "The Racka from Hungary and Romanovs from Lithuania were imported by the Chambre d’Agriculture Francais. They came here by lorry."
The Racka is a unique breed, with both ewes and rams possessing impressive long spiral shaped horns and shaggy fleece varying in colour from dark brown to light brown and white, turning grey with age.
The Romanov sheep from Russia are double coated and, at the time the project was founded and six Lithuanian Romanovs were imported, the population size was only 50 animals. However this has since increased.
The pink face and legs of the Rouge de l’Ouest is distinctive, making them look as though they have been out in the sun too long!
Alpaca are to be found here, too, its wool classed as the most precious, and the most unusual resident, the Mangantza, a pig from Switzerland, again prized for its wool.
Jacob and Soay breeds from Scotland, Border Leicester and Suffolk from England, and Black Face from Ireland represent the British Isles. Shelters have been constructed in the pens representing the country from which the breed originates, such as a mountain of climbing rocks for the Alpaca.
Mlle Blanchard continues: "Two wolves were also introduced at the beginning of the project, a male and a female. Sadly, they did not survive very long, as the torment of the smell of the sheep, upon whom they would prey in their natural environment, created such mental and physical problems that they both died within a month of each other, and have not been replaced."
Maison du Mouton, the visitor centre, opened in 1995 and earphones can be hired so that, walking through wooden archways around the Jardin at different points, the visitor can hear an audio commentary in their native tongue.
By each pen, explanatory plaques in both French and English give background information on the different breeds. Woollen garments and lamb products can be purchased in the shop; there are looms displaying the art of weaving, and an audio-visual slide show depicts scenes from life on a typical farm in the Gâtine.
During the season there are displays of shearing, sorting fleece, wool carding and spinning. Look out for posters advertising sheep dog trials, and children can go along and feed the lambs.
Future plans include expansion to include other threatened breeds, and cross-breeding certain types, for example, crossing a meat producing breed with another meat producing breed, to get a superior quality meat animal.
Most of the animals bred at the centre are sold, either to breed associations, individual enthusiasts or other centres.
Local inhabitants not involved in sheep farming became as enthusiastic about the project as those more directly involved, as the centre expanded, the village received more visitors, businesses opened, employment was created, the sheep market grew and Vasles found itself on the tourist map.
Mouton Village is open every day from 10.30am to 6pm.
Beryl Brennan worked for more then 10 years with BBC Manchester regional radio, before moving to western France in 2002. While still writing about France, her other passion is greyhounds, helping to rehome rescued dogs through the Galgo News website.
If you found this useful...
+ Stay up-to-date: Get your free This French Life newsletter
I'm sure you would enjoy "Fraîche Fields et pâtures new"
Posted by: Chris Moorey | 08 April 2008 at 20:34
The Raţca breed is not a hungarian breed but Romanian. It is also named Oaia Valahă / The Valachian Sheep. So, since I remember Valachia is not and will never be in hungary, but the south part of ROMÂNIA!
The hungarians do have also this breed, but that doesn't mean that is a hungarian breed.
Many thanks, Dragos-Narcis
Posted by: Dragos-Narcis | 16 September 2010 at 10:08
Posted by: Craig McGinty | 16 September 2010 at 13:58