Lacaune Ewes and Transhumance in Aveyron
Lacaune Breed characteristics
Lacaune ewes' milk is exclusively used for the production of the AOC Roquefort cheese.
The breed originates from the Lacaune Mountains, an arid region located in the neighbouring department of Tarn.
A lengthy selection led to the creation of the breed which today represents a herd of about 800,000 animals.
A ministerial decree of 1902 indeed defined the characteristics of the breed.
These include, among others, the size and weight of females and males as well as the quality and the implantation of their thin white fleece.
They have no horns and their elongated head ends in a slightly rounded snout.
Finally, their legs, neck, head and belly don't have wool but fine hairs.
In 1922 the producers of milk in the Roquefort area regrouped into a Regional Federation of Breeders.
In 1947 they compiled and recorded the genealogical data of the Lacaune ewes in a charter.
This Flock Book served as a starting point for improving the characteristics of the breed.
Further improvements took place over the following decades.
Lacaune ewe milk and AOC Roquefort cheese
These resulted in 1969 with the creation of a new branch producing animals bred for meat.
Both branches are two separate activities of sheep farming.
Some breeders are therefore specialized in dairy sheep and the others in the breeding of lambs for meat.
However, Lacaune ewes are best known for their great qualities as dairy ewes.
A prolific Lacaune dairy ewe indeed produces between two and three liters of milk per day during the lactation period which lasts from December to July.
The milk, famous for its richness and quality, is mainly used for the production of Roquefort.
Lacaune ewes are milked twice a day; the milk is collected daily by the dairies of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
Ewe milk collected in the 2500 farms located in the licensed Roquefort area produces 19,000 tonnes of AOC Roquefort cheese per year!
The highland pastures
Lacaune ewes spend the long winter months in large sheepfolds in the valley where they give birth to their lambs.
Comes summer and they travel to the high pastures of the Causses of Aveyron to graze on fresh grass.
Grazing has a beneficial impact on the surroundings.
It indeed limits fires caused by extreme drought and summer heat.
It also maintains pastures and transhumance trails locally known as drailles.
At night the ewes find shelter in purposely built stone sheepfolds or jasses.
However, the high plateaus of the Causses are poor in water.
The shepherds therefore dig rounded water points paved with stones or clay in order to collect rainwater.
These structures - lavognes - are unique to the area.
Lacaune ewes are therefore often left in vast enclosures of several hectares of land with only a jasse and a lavogne.
They graze until September-October before returning to the valley.
This traditional change of pasture is known as transhumance.
The transhumance can take place over several days, or only a day but all start at the first crack of dawn.
First, there is the sound of bleating echoing through the farmyard and the pervasive odor of fleeces mingled with the smell of straw.
Then, there are a multitude of pairs of eyes glowing in the twilight of the fold.
Then comes a tide of Lacaune ewes trampling the straw, pushing each other and colliding to be the first to leave.
The animals seem to have a sixth sense.
They indeed know that their stay in the valley is about to end and that they will soon find the great wilderness.
Outside the pen the shepherds finish the last preparations; the dogs run from a master to another, waiting for their orders.
Suddenly the starting signal is given, the doors open and the herd set free.
Shepherds and dogs are all in place and lead with confidence the great moving mass.
However, the animals seem to establish a spontaneous hierarchy.
They huddle in small groups and blindly follow their leader, a black sheep.
The dogs surround the herd and ensure that the ewes don't stop en route to graze.
All is well established for the same ritual is repeated year after year.
Sometimes a few intrepid ewes wander in the wrong direction, bringing in their wake an army of followers.
Fortunately the dogs always manage to bring them back.
Several hundreds Lacaune ewes finally engulf the transhumance trails.
A cloud of red dust rises under the trampling of hoofs.
The air is filled with a cacophony of bleating, barking and whistling.
The abrupt trails end on the plateau.
Ewes know they have arrived when they recognize the vegetation of the highlands.
They disperse in small groups, however, always follow their black sheep!
It is time for the shepherds and their dogs to return down in the valley.
Cardanelle, the Sheperd's Barometer
An amazing range of grass and species species have colonized the highland pastures.
Scanty vegetation of rosemary, thyme and wild lavender bushes and blue-purple thistles therefore grow among dwarf oaks.
However, the shepherds are particular fond of the Cardine or Cardanelle, a creeping thistle with jagged leaves.
This beautiful star-shape plant indeed bears delicate yellow flowers.
It is commonly known as the Shepherd's Barometer because of its sensitivity to moisture.
It indeed opens to the sun and closes when the air is saturated with moisture.
It has become the symbol of the Grands Causses of Aveyron and is a protected species.