France: Sheep farming in decline for four decades

Whether they are producing cheese milk or nursing their lambs for slaughter, ewes produce one to two young a year in a single litter. In addition, breeders regularly sell sheep slaughtered for slaughter. But for a variety of reasons, including under-compensation of farmers, the workforce continues to decline and France imported 81,970 tonnes of sheep meat in 2020. However, our country has vast areas of natural pastures in several of its regions. In sloping areas such as the mid-mountains, these meadows are favorable for sheep farming and help to slow global warming by storing carbon. Reviving sheep farming must therefore be a priority for Marc Fesneau, the new Minister of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty.

In Ireland, according to data from the Irish Ministry of Agriculture and assumed by “La France Agricole” of June 24, the sheep herd increased by 5% between December 2019 and December 2021 and now reaches 2.7 million sheep. This small country also has a large herd of dairy cows. It should be added that sheep farms are quite modest in size, with an average of 77 sheep per farm. Ireland exports 75,000 tonnes of sheepmeat carcass equivalent each year, including 23,000 tonnes to France, which remains its main customer ahead of the UK, Germany and Sweden.

Why so much New Zealand beef in Europe?

The decline in sheepmeat production in France cannot be attributed to Ireland. The facilities granted decades ago to New Zealand to export sheepmeat to European Union member countries, at the request of the United Kingdom, were the main cause of the decline in French production. In 2019, New Zealand exported 389,000 tonnes of sheepmeat carcass equivalent worldwide, including 228,000 tonnes to the European Union. Almost half of that volume was purchased by the UK, often in the form of frozen meat. This allowed our neighbor across the Channel to export an ever-increasing share of its fresh meat to France. Despite the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, New Zealand still benefits from an export quota of 228,000 tonnes of sheepmeat per year in Europe, with its main customers being France, Germany and Down.

This complicates the needed revival of sheep farming in France. But our country also faces a disadvantage that does not exist in Ireland or New Zealand. There are now around 900 wild wolves in our country and they are mainly present in sheep farming areas. Because the flocks of sheep that graze in the meadows, near the farm or in the summer pastures are easier prey to apprehend than roe deer, deer, chamois or wild boar.

At least 11 wolf packs in Drôme

According to Paul Bérard, president of the community of communes of the “Pays de Grignan-Enclave des Papes” in the department of Drôme, there are 11 packs of wolves officially identified in this department where attacks have quadrupled in six years. In addition to the poorly compensated losses after these attacks, herding dogs are expensive to keep for breeders, while their aggressiveness in defending and protecting the herds is exerted more against walkers than against wolves who know how to attack at the right time. of the flock of sheep.

In a column published by “La France Agricole” on March 18, 2022, Paul Bérard saw this as one of the reasons for the decline of sheep farming in France and added this observation: “The absence of a herd in mountain pastures leads to a lack of maintenance of areas that are harmful to biodiversity. The sheep and cows are replaced by thorns and the circles close. The presence of the wolf also has an impact on the behavior of the game that, when not decimated, leaves our lands”.

A questioning of the identity of the creators

In 2017, a 145-page study carried out on the Larzac plateau and published by INRAE ​​and SupAgro-Montpellier with the collaboration of the Center for Studies and Pastoral Achievements Alpes-Méditerranée (CEPAM) reached the same conclusions and gave us this Comment by Laurent Garde, Deputy Director of CEPAM:

“Today we are witnessing a weakening of the pastoral field that raises many questions about the future. The wolf is inevitably an eviction engine for pastoralism (…) When the packs are more and more numerous, the protection of the herd takes priority, the breeders no longer have time to dedicate themselves to genetics, inevitably putting aside the technique. They don’t have the intellectual means, the mental strength to manage their herd, to market their products as if nothing had happened. These attacks are a violent challenge to the very identity of the creators” (1).

The concern of breeders unions

Earlier this week, we learned that, according to the assessment of the population of wolves in France for the winter of 2021-2022, their number would be 921. In a press release published on June 27, the Confédération paysanne indicates that the departments affected by wolf attacks on herds “have been multiplied by 5 in 10 years. Erratic wolves have been observed in recent months in Brittany, Normandy, Pays de la Loire and Center Val de Loire. In a joint press release published the same day, the FNSEA, three of its breeder unions (federation of sheep, cattle and horses), the Young Farmers’ Union and the Chambers of Agriculture, evoke “a faulty wolf count” in the France, which leads to an underestimation of their number. This press release indicates that attacks are increasingly numerous against livestock and issues this warning:

The expansion of predators is, in fact, a direct threat to rural areas, now at the heart of European policies. It contributes to the non-renewal of breeders and the abandonment of areas maintained by them and their herds, impoverishing biodiversity as a whole (…). FNSEA/JA/FNO/FNB/FNC/Chambres d’agriculture France has chosen to defend and protect herds in order to preserve the cultivation of grasses outdoors. They ask current public authorities to take on this struggle for the survival of creators…”.

As in the Eastern Pyrenees since yesterday, fires have multiplied in recent weeks in areas that have become too dangerous for herbivores to graze there. It remains to be seen how the new minister of “Agriculture and Food Sovereignty” will try to overcome this disadvantage, while at the same time working to improve this food sovereignty for which he is now officially responsible.

Excerpt from the book “Things learned in 2020 to act against hunger” by Gérard Le Puill, Croquant editions, 220 pages, €12

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