The National Sheepfold



France has many great national institutions; the National Stud, for example, with its 26 establishments and hundreds of stallions of seven different breeds, is justly world-famous. But how many of us sheep-farmers included know that a similar establishment exists for sheep?
King Louis XVI of France (the one who lost his head in the revolution), while frankly bored by the business of government, was deeply interested in a number of things connected with crafts and agriculture. He was, for example, a competent locksmith, and turned his hand to a little ornamental ironwork from time to time.
King Louis was by no means unaware of the starving condition of his peasant subjects, and encouraged a number of developments in farming. Perhaps it was being married to Marie-Antoinette, a woman who liked to dress up as a shepherdess, that turned his mind to the rearing of sheep.
Throughout the eighteenth century every European country had been at a disadvantage in terms of wool production against the dominance of Spain, where the development of the merino breed had effectively cornered the market in fine wool. Merinos had hitherto been considered too delicate for more northern climates, but Louis and his scientific advisers decided that breeding them in France might be worth a try.
Persuading the Spaniards to part with a few of their 25 million merinos was made easier by the fact that the new King of Spain was a cousin of the King of France. The French Ambassador was sent round the breeding establishments and put together a flock of 334 ewes and 42 rams. Seven bell-wethers were also purchased, to help lead the flock on its long journey from Segovia into France.
The journey, undertaken by a chief shepherd and five assistants, took from June 15 to October 12, 1786. Snow and a lack of grass on the Pyrenees caused a few deaths among the flock, but only sixteen ewes and one ram perished on the journey. However, an epidemic of the sheep-pox prevalent at the time carried off another 35 in the course of the first winter.
The merinos were installed in a farm on the royal estate at Rambouillet, thirty miles south-east of Paris. Marie-Antoinette was pleased, especially as it gave her something to look at when the court came to Rambouillet, a palace she once described as a Gothic toad-hole. After the first winter the sheep were housed mainly indoors, where they produced more and finer wool than they had in Spain. By 1798 Rambouillet fleeces were selling at 1,000 francs a hundred, while ordinary wool fetched only 148 francs. Louis XVI was dead by that time, in a Revolution led by townsfolk rather than peasants; but the Bergerie Royale, the Royal Sheepfold, renamed National under the Republic and Imperial under Napoleon, was far too valuable to be suppressed.
Though careful in-breeding has maintained a flock of 120 pure merino ewes and a stud of 30 rams all descended from that original flock the breed did, in fact, prove too delicate for French conditions, and the main service provided by the National Sheepfold over the years has been in cross-breeding with French varieties (especially the Ile-de-France) to produce constantly finer wool.
The visitor to Rambouillet today will find a busy, bustling establishment, housed in a mixture of eighteenth-century and modern buildings, and engaged in a range of activities.
A road across the splendid park of Rambouillet palace leads to a shady parking area in front of the main gate of what is plainly the original Home Farm. A square of buildings surrounds a central paddock, and facing the gate is a splendid example of a manorial dovecote. Before the revolution, only the Lord of the Manor was allowed to keep pigeons, which essentially feed on other people's corn. It was a form of taxation. Inside the dovecote the walls are lined by thousands of pigeon-holes, and a ladder on the end of a revolving beam allows an egg-collector access to every nest. The post and beam are so perfectly constructed that a small child can move the ladder round with very little effort.
The courtyard in front of the dovecote is mostly residential nowadays; another behind it houses the merino rams of the Rambouillet stud. The ewes and lambs (born in November and December) live in another courtyard to the right of the car-park, where there are also offices and a small museum.
Beyond the rams' courtyard is the working heart of modern Rambouillet, the Centre d'Enseignement Zootechnique. This Agricultural College has expanded from its original purpose of training only shepherds to include five branches of study. Sheep-rearing comes first, naturally, with courses from ten weeks to two years leading to basic and superior diplomas. Under French law, it is worth remembering, no unqualified person is allowed to be in charge of a flock even if he inherits it.
The second speciality is the rearing of poultry and rabbits with a special course on this work in hot countries. The third is Artificial Insemination, the fourth concerns all aspects of work with horses. Finally, sandwich courses of up to half a year are run on management, marketing and quality control. To back up all these courses, there is a mixed farm with sheep of breeds other than merinos, and all the livestock necessary for the specialities on offer.
The Bergerie Nationale at Rambouillet is worth a visit for any family, sheep-farming or not. The old buildings (including that amazing dovecote) are available to wander round, and the guided tours of the premises are worthwhile whether one speaks French or not. All the livestock is on show; the French seem to take the attitude that any visitor to such a place will naturally be trustworthy around animals. The little museum concerns the merinos and the life of shepherds down the years, including the annual transhumance journeys of southern France. On summer weekends there are demonstrations of shearing, spinning and weaving; shows of various different breeds; sheepdog trials and other competitions. The park of Rambouillet is beautiful, and there are plenty of excellent picnic spots.
So next time you're in France, take the N10 road from Paris and follow the signs to 'Chateau de Rambouillet' and then 'Bergerie Nationale' for a really interesting day out.

Hedley Grenfell-Banks