The local tourist offices are quite good at finding interesting things for people to do. For yesterday two farm visits were arranged, both quite near me. The only obvious holidaymakers were two Belgian families, two couples with two children each. The first farm is run by Mélie, a young woman who has taken over her father’s land. He had beef cattle, but she was keen to breed sheep so went to Agricultural College to earn a degree. When the convoy of cars arrived were greeted by the farm dogs, a Border Collie who hadn’t yet learnt anything about herding sheep, a Beauceron and another big dog of indeterminate breed. The dogs ran round sniffing us all, some more than others, and accepting having their ears rubbed. The children were enthralled and keen to play with the dogs. The visit began in a huge hangar for the sheep where there was a pen of young ewes, two pens each containing two rams of different breeds, and one pen with a few odd ewes: these were the ones who had been barren more than once and so were destined for slaughter. The majority of the sheep were a breed called eh White of the Massif Centrale, a hardy breed that could manage the sparse grazing and harsh winters of that mountainous region, but two of the rams were a breed called Red of the West, which is a compact breed that produces a lot of meat. I asked if the rams wore harnesses with “crayons” to mark the ewes who’d been covered, but Mélie said no, she did an ultrasound on each ewe a certain number of days after the rams had first been introduced: ration, one ram for about ten ewes. That not only told her id hey were pregnant but also eh number of lambs, so if there were any worries, e.g. triplets, they’d know to keep that ewe under close observation. Any that aren’t pregnant are put in the next batch to go with the rams: this is a breed where the ewes can have two seasons per year. There is a local man who has an ultrasound machine and does the task. As a lot of the sheep had clearly been recently sheared the question was asked about wool: Mélie breeds only for meat. The man who shears them charges a fairly low price per sheep and he keeps the wool and disposes of it. At one side of the hangar is the lambing shed, empty at the moment.

In a field close by was a flock of about 80 ewes, all destined to be joined by the rams in September.

We saw the food, locally bought where possible: a mix of mostly wheat with other grains, and dried peas for protein. Mélie from time to time has the faeces of the sheep checked for signs of parasites and so treats only if there are any. Apparently they don’t seem to be bothered by ticks. The sheep usually go to a local abattoir for slaughter, and Mélie does sell some privately. The abattoir will butcher the meat to a customer requirements: a popular cut in France is the leg cut in slices through the bone rather than having it as a joint.

We then moved over to the cattle: Limousin, a beef breed with a lovely golden red coat colour. The herd was gathered near the farm buildings, about 80 cows with their calves at foot. Male calves are removed from the mother at about 6 months, kept out at grass and then go for slaughter at about 12 to 14 months, as pink veal. Heifers are either retained to increase the herd or kept for meat, at about 3 years old. A local butcher buys their cattle at the rate of one cow per fortnight and veal calves as he requires. I was intrigued that their horns had been cut short but they hadn’t been disbudded: it’s the personal choice of the farmer, apparently. The bull was off in a distant field on his own, laying down and apparently not at all interested by the crowd of people near his cows.

As we gathered to go on to the next farm visit, one of the children was holding the collar of one of the farm dogs and leading him to their car. I sked him if eh wanted o take the dog home, at which his mother noticed and told him off. She said he’ been frightened of dogs until that day but his sister was clearly a dog lover, most of the visit she’d been playing with the Border Collie. The father said “I think we must get a dog!”

At the poultry farm we had to have the wheels of our cars sprayed with an antivirus substance and also dip the soles of our shoes in it: government requirement due to avian ‘flu. Someone called my name and I saw two women I knew form eh old social club, so joined them.

We began by visiting the ostriches, two males (orange beaks) and four females. Etienne, the owner of the farm, had a basket of food for eh children to throw to eh birds, chunks of bread, melon peel etc. It was amusing for them to see that as the bread was swallowed its shape travel down their necks. They are sold for meat but the big sales are their eggs which people buy to decorate.

Next was the food mill: Etienne buys grain from local farmers where possible and grinds it to break it up a bit to make it easier for the birds to digest. There is no genetically modified grain at all, but he does buy soya grains from abroad for protein. He invited us to taste the soya and one of the children cupped her hands, scooped some up and went round offering it to everyone. We then visited a shed of guinea fowl, before he opened the door he said “They are like the mother-in-law: they never stop nagging” and they are very noisy birds indeed! Next were two houses of meat breed hens, who he let out. It was shame that the children ran over to the doors to watch the birds as they came out, so Etienne had to call, “Please move away: the birds are too scared to come out!

Next were the turkeys: three breeds and all females. If there are males Etienne castrates them. It means they grow larger than normal, but do make good meat. He longer hatches his own chicks, except for the ostriches, and buys most in at about ten to fourteen days old. Usually it is possible to tell the sex of turkeys before that age, but there are mistakes!

Next was the pigeon house. He showed us a couple of squabs and let the children hold them, asking if they could imagine that something so ugly could grow up as handsome as the parents!

Leaving the pigeons we found ourselves surrounded by Maran hens, the layers of very dark brown eggs. Etienne had already told us that a good laying hen is thin: you don’t want a bird putting her energy into increasing her own body weight, you want her to put it into her eggs! Hens generally produce an egg every 26 hours, and he feeds crushed oyster shell to help them produce eggs with strong shells. He also uses natural verifies; certain plants that are very efficient and can be mixed into the feed.

Last was the abattoir, not in use but we saw the machinery: the hens are anaesthetised by electric shock and then killed by the age old method of cutting the throat. Etienne assured us that all employees of the farm have completed a course in ethical animal treatment and the abattoir staff have also passed a specific exam in animal welfare in the slaughterhouse. It is crucial to have the shock correct as if it kills the birds they don’t bleed out and the meat is red, unwanted by buyers. The feathers are stripped by machine and the pigeon feathers go into a machine that processes them and retrieves a sort of wax.

They no longer keep ducks or geese: again do to with avian flu it has been deemed dangerous to keep palmipeds and gallliforms together as palmipeds can frequently be vectors of diseases from which they don’t themselves suffer. The law permits it if the birds are kept totally separate with a large tract of land between them. As Etienne’s hens have total free range of the whole farm, that isn’t possible for him.

We couldn’t visit the rabbit houses: rabbits panic too easily if scared and can die from the stress.

The day ended with a meal; began with local pineau, a fortified wine, then locally grown melon; tomato salad with hard boiled guinea fowl eggs and chicken rillettes made on the farm. Next was the best: roast chicken and chips: I saw someone peeling the spuds when I arrived, so was happy to know we’d have real chips, not the reconstituted frozen kind. More people I know arrived: a lot of people had booked for just eh meal and not done the farm visits but one woman said “I didn’t know about the farm visits! It was just that some people we met asked if we were coming to this meal” I replied that it’s a good idea to look in the tourist office from time to time. The poultry farm walk had been advertised at the side of the road for a while, but just big boards with “Farm open day visit, Tuesday 25 July” so somewhat lacking in information.

Both Etienne and Mélie had spoken a bit about legislation and that they have to spend quite a lot of time on office work, completing obligatory reports. Hens are not individually identified, but all sheep must now have microchips in their ear tags: they have to be readily identified. I thought that although it had been a bit complicated to be a “professional” dog breeder, it was a lot less than having a commercial farm!

Jane