With more than 10% of the French livestock, the ovine breeding represents one of the main production basin of lambs at the national scale. Besides, it is the ovine basin that best keeps its numbers over time: in a context of sharp decrease at the national level, the two regions involved (Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur and Rhône-Alpes) are the only two that have had stabilized numbers for the last 25 years.
This stability is linked to the reduction of the number of breeders, along with an increase in the average number of animals in the farms, which is twice higher than the national average in the South of the Alps where the main part of the livestock is gathered (330 ewes per farm in 2006 against a national average of about 150 ewes).
Therefore, the ovine breeding is for the large majority specialized, which means that it derives the whole or the main part of its income from the flock. The aids from the Common Agricultural Policy play a crucial part in the maintaining of this kind of activities, the average income of which is neatly inferior to that of most other farming productions.
The main ovine breeds dealt with are all rustic and heirs of a long history of alpine breeding: Arles Merinos, Prealpes du Sud, Mourerous and Thones-Marthod. The introduction of the Merinos at the beginning of the XIXth century reinforced the vocation in wool of the large Mediterranean flocks.
And yet, this direction fell into disuse as soon as the end of the same century following the abolition of the customs on wool, which made French wool rather uncompetitive in front of imports. In the mountains, the flocks were smaller and belonged to farms divided between mixed farming and breeding that the flocks supplied in manure, the only available fertilizer. Hence the economic value of transhumance for the mountain communities: when the large provençal flocks left, the manure was carefully collected from the night dry stone sheepfolds and used by local farmers as a complement for the all too meagre local resources in this material.
When manure lost all economic value at the end of the XIXth century, nocturnal gathering was abandoned in a context in which the disappearance of wolves no longer caused problems of security for the flocks. For a historian of the period, this upheaval in pastoral practices enabled a sharp improvement of the high mountain pastures to take place by allowing a much better distribution between the pastures and the places where sheep sleep...
Since wolves came back, the nocturnal gathering of the flocks to protect them from predations can be a factor of deterioration of the high mountain pastures.
- Minutes of the seminar "Wolves-breeding: open up to the diversity" (p.14 to 20): Pastoralism and ovine breeding in zones of predation in the South East of France (in French)