Remarkable biodiversity
Diversity of meat sheep breeds

Béliers de race Ile de France
Béliers de race Ile de France - Crédit : OSON


The French national sheep herd boasts an outstanding range of breed phenotypes, with 24 specialized meat, high-prolific or hardy breeds, all governed under official selection programmes.

The last few decades have witnessed major shifts in the land map and composition of the French national sheep flock. The progressive abandonment of ewe-plus-cereal crop systems by farms in the Paris Basin has redrawn the distribution of the nation’s flocks, which are now clustered in the grassland regions of central and western France and the tougher, more rugged zones of the southern half of the country.

 Specialized meat breeds

The northern half of France is home to over 10 meat breeds, all of which typically produce heavy top-gain market lambs. The high-prolific Romane breed (formerly ’INRA 401’) completes the list. Whether raised as high-value purebreds or for terminal crossbreeding on hardy breeds, these breeds have met with success the world over, either in areas centred on cereal crop production or grassland areas offering good forage potential.

Under intensive flock management systems led in cereal-crop areas, early-maturing breeds that produce heavy lambs, like the Ile de France and the Berrichon du Cher, offer excellent perspectives for squeezing added value from cereals by finishing in the sheepfold. Their out-of-season breeding ability also unlocks possibilities for running different lambing systems (1 or 2 lambing intervals) in order to best gear offer to market demand.

Under semi-extensive systems in the grasslands zones of good forage potential spanning central-western France, breeds like the Vendéen, the Texel, Charollais, Rouge de l’Ouest and Charmoise can be efficiently managed as unweaned grass-fed lambs.

The possibilities for finishing the lambs on grass or in the sheepfold, allied with the ability to exploit early-lambing ability mean that flock management systems can be flexibly remodelled to meet each livestock breeder’s objectives, notably to develop highly-profitable out-of-season production.

 Hardy maternal breeds

In the south of France, a dozen breeds offer the hardiness and maternal traits needed to ensure sheep farming can remain competitive despite the rugged production conditions (climate, topography, nutrient-poor forage): the Limousine (Haut-Limousin), Rava and Bizet (Auvergne), Causses du Lot, Blanche du Massif Central and the Meat Lacaune (Lozère), the Grivette, the Préalpes du Sud and the Tarasconnais (Pyrenees).

These breeds give good results in purebred herds, as they are able to sire robust lambs with relatively little investment input. They can also be profitable additions for terminal crossbreeding with top-gaining carcass merit breeds.

To round off, France still boasts a large Merino population. The hardiness and fertility of the Arles Merino make it still the best of the best for the long transhumance routes.

Arles merino flocks are essentially found between the low-lying plains of the Rhone corridor (Crau and Camargue) and the high-altitude summer pastures of the Alps.

The Est à Laine Merino is thriving in eastern France, and is one of the most outstandingly flexible and adaptable breeds around. Both these hardy breeds are prized by breeders working in tough farming conditions, and can be very profitably crossed with pure-purpose meat breeds.

 

Key figures

  • 8 million sheep (dairy and meat breeds)
  • 5.4 million meat breed sheep
  • 8 specialized sheep meat breeds under selection programmes
  • 15 hardy sheep meat breeds under selection programmes
  • 1 highly-prolific breed under a selection programme