dimanche 30 septembre 2007

Ouessant Sheep and Breton Horses

This region like many in France has its own specialities when it comes to livestock and the Breton horse has to be one of the most spectacular. A heavy horse kept mostly these days by enthusiasts and lovers of the breed is often to be seen benignly munching in fields and my visit to pick up a couple of new ewes the other day was only improved by seeing the owners collection of Breton Horses, just stunning!

The reason for my visit was of course to follow up on the flock of ouessant sheep I had spied the other week and if at all possible buy a couple, well lucky me!!! After a couple of phonecalls I was able to buy two adult ewes from a completely different line to those I currently have. The rams have great horns and the ewes are all well boned and with good toplines and the one in particular is just so petite. Pics when they get into the isolation paddock.

I have looked long and hard for some nice names and they will be Amandine and Rozenn. They are in this pic somewhere!

The History of Ouessant Sheep

It always surprised me that whilst the island of Ouessant is well known for its sheep there was very little on the breed on the island before the turn of the 19th century. Alas there was even less on the internet and so it was a point of frustration that whilst tales abound of an ancient island breed there was very little evidence to prove the ouessant sheep origins. It was also a surprise that despite the more recent history of the breed being saved from destruction with only a few scarce examples being found as far away as the loire atlantique I find ouessant sheep in this part of Brittany with almost abundance. How could this be?

I think I have a less exotic but more reasonable explanation. I will credit all the references I have used to compile my theory at the end of this but first the most recent history of the breed is the creation of GEMO the breed society in France and a small group of dedicated breeders who set about restoring the breed.

En 1976, Monsieur Paul Abbé et ses amis entreprennent le sauvetage de la race. Ils s'appuient sur des troupeaux ayant conservé le type " primitif " et utilisés sur le continent pour agrémenter de grandes propriétés familiales. La plupart de ces élevages continentaux descendent du cheptel de la famille De GOULAINE qui possédait des moutons d'Ouessant depuis au moins 100 ans dans sa propriété de Saint-Etienne de Corcoué en Loire-Atlantique. Grâce au G.E.M.O. (groupement des éleveurs de moutons d'Ouessant) l'effectif français est passé de 486 animaux en 1977 à plusieurs milliers actuellement.
C'est donc par sa fonction d'animal d'agrément que le mouton d'Ouessant survit à ce XX° siècle.

I think at this point it is also important to note the unique input of M Gilles Delorme without whom the mouton d'ouessant would have probably remained a well kept secret instead his website which is comprehensive and extensive has signifcantly raised the profile and understanding of this breed on a worldwide scale.
So having arrived at a point where we have a breed society not only in France but also the breed has become more well known in other European countries, where are the sheep on Ouessant?

Today the little black sheep of the island is pretty much no longer in existance, it is certainly true the island is populated by a mixed breed of predominantly white sheep with some black examples still there, but very few and certainly not the little tiny island sheep of myth and legend.
Then I found an amazing document buried in an edition of the animal genetic resources infiormation was a text on Le Mouton Breton The Breton Sheep, fascinating, it seems that there may be an explanation and that in fact the little black sheep from the island of Ouessan
t originated from a general population of hardy primitive mainland sheep that hitherto had been though of as pretty unremarkable by most who had come across them. These sheep were rustic, varied in size but many were typically of small size and usually self coloured with examples being noted of brown, black, some white, grey was mentioned and some white with red marks. Their fleeces and value was considered as minimal and it was presumed that the climate and nutrition ( many being found in coastal areas) had contributed to their very small stunted size. It was noted that they rarely produced twins. There was it seems a differentiation as with the influx of larger breeds from Holland the "Race a deux" - breed of twins was recognised as being known for twin births unlike the "Mouton des landes de Bretagne " known for single lambs.
it seems that over time Le Mouton Breton - Breton Sheep began to form two distinct varieties, The Race a Deux or Mouton de Deux (de Belle Ile)
a breed capable of producing twin lambs and of larger stature, a mix of the original primitive type of sheep and examples brought across from Holland and The mouton des landes de Bretagne was the example that seems to have been responsible for the distribution of black sheep and those of small size and distinctive primitive fleece were more restricted to the western regions of Brittany and of course the Island Of Ouessant. Who knows, the orginal breed or type of sheep may have originated from populations of sheep traded with some of the celtic trading partners. The Bretons are a race of seafarers and their culture and language is most closely associated with the other celtic regions, a Cornishman and a Breton can actually converse in their native languages and understand each other. Geographically they are also very close seperated only by the treacherous seas of the english channel, of which the island of Ouessant is a likely land fall. Could there be a link with Hebredians? and the primtive breeds of scandanavia? Some have suggested a link with the black welsh mountain, certainly the Xalda sheep of Spain bear a remarkable similarity. The uniqueness of the Ouessant Sheep its size and rusticity makes in an interesting and invaluable relic of primitive sheep genetics and ancestry, its exact origins will probably never be known but it seems thanks to some modern detective work its history is no longer a myth but legendary. The Ouessant is defined ( some think to its disadvantage) by its size primarily. The breed it seems is a modern day resurrection of the traditional breed of sheep found across much of Brittany but noteably kept on the island of Ouessant where conditions dictated its small size and hardiness. The above document also seems to be the origin of the oft quoted phrase The mouton d'ouessant, one of the smallest breeds of sheep in the world.

references le mouton nain Gilles Delorme
Le mouton breton B Denis and X Maher Ecole nationale veterinaire de Nantes

The Ouessant Sheep originates from the island of Ouessant, part of a tiny archipelago just off the north coast of Finistere, Brittany. The island of terror as it was known to some, was swept by the full force of the atlantic’s weather, the hardy sheep adapted to survive on poor grazing from salty clifftop meadows. It was the women of the island that raised the sheep, renowned for their black wool to weave into cloth known locally as berlinge and their meat with its sweet and delicate taste.

La race "Mouton d'Ouessant" est originaire de l’île d’’Ouessant qui fait parti d’un petit archipel au large du Finistère, Bretagne. L’île de l'épouvante comme c'était connu par certains était balayé par les intempéries de l’atlantique, ces moutons rustiques s'adaptaient à survivre sur les pâturages pauvres des falaises salées. C’était les femmes de l’île qui élevaient les moutons réputés pour leur laine noire à tisser « la berlinge » une étoffe régionale et leur viande avec un goût doux et délicat.

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