Breed: chèvre des Fossés (ditch goat) or chèvre des Talus (bank goat) or chèvre commune de l’Ouest (landrace goat of western France).
Origin: The chèvre des Fossés is local to Brittany, Normandy, and Pays de la Loire in northwest France. Earlier origins are unknown. The breed’s characteristics suggest descendence from cold-weather goats that accompanied the migration of early settlers across northern Europe 5,000 years ago.
History: In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, poor rural families kept these small multi-purpose goats for milk, meat, and skin, as well as for managing local paths, banks, and ditches. They were known as the “poor man’s cow.”
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A family owned one or two females, which they tethered at the side of thoroughfares to browse the bushes by day. Goat-kids would accompany their dams free-range. Children would peg out the does on the way to school, or the grandmother would position them on a different patch each day. In the evening, the children or grandmother would collect the goats, and the grandmother would milk them to feed the baby or make milk pudding for the family. The kids were destined as meat for the Easter celebration. Bucks pulled carts bearing the father’s trade paraphernalia or even invalids. These goats were not recognized as a breed, although they were clearly distinctive to this region.
Chèvre des Fossés: A Rare Breed Almost Lost
The modernization of agriculture and shopping habits in the 1980s lead to marginalization of the chèvre des Fossés to the point that it was almost lost. Farmers sought to improve their stock with popular lines, which had become more readily available. Local breeds were disdained as old fashioned. The population of the local landrace diminished to only a few hundred head.
One farmer, Bruno Paysant, remembers how his family had a herd of 80 does and four or five bucks that they bred to produce kids to sell to local workers in the 1970s. They sold about 80 kids per year to be raised as meat for special occasions, as goat meat was half the price of lamb. Sales had diminished by 1985 with the opening of superstores.
Goats released during the 1970s and 1980s had formed a feral herd on the Normandy cliffs. They were discovered by a coastline conservancy in 1989. Meanwhile, Laurent Avon was seeking out local livestock breeds for conservation for Idele, the national livestock institute. In 1994, he came across a few remaining indigenous goats. He named them “chèvres des fossés” when he described them to the region’s livestock conservancy, the Ecomusée du Pays de Rennes. These parties teamed up to search the area for remnants of landrace herds. They found two domestic crosses and one pure-bred female, and took them to the feral herd to mate. Later they found four unrelated females and four unrelated males of different purebred lines. These goats form the basis of the rebuilt population of the breed. Enthusiasts bred and developed herds to increase numbers. By the end of the 1990s, Idele and regional conservation bodies formed a technical committee to manage breeding and protection. Numbers increased rapidly from 62 females in 1999 to 515 in 2006.
In 2004, the national ministry of agriculture recognized the breed. Pioneering breeders formed their own conservancy, the Association de Sauvegarde et de Promotion de la Chèvre des Fossés (ASP Chèvre des Fossés) in 2007. This organization defines the standard, seeks out bucks, maintains the herdbook, collects semen for a cryobank, connects breeders, and promotes products and business start-ups.
Conservation Status: Endangered (risk of extinction in the short term) — 900 head (700 females) in 110 holdings.
Biodiversity: Historically, local inbreeding has reduced variability. However, the Ecomusée has collected and preserved samples from different locations to introduce new strains. Idele collects genetic data and analyses genealogies. Currently offspring have an average of four known generations, but more thorough family tracing is desirable. Inbreeding persists (average 4.5 percent), but it is not as severe as in most small populations (45 percent of females are completely unrelated). For a small population, there is a good source of different lines. Breeders aim to improve genetic management.
The Ecomusée holds and manages the cryobank of frozen semen (133 samples per buck) of fourteen bucks from eleven different lines, of which nine are completely unrelated. It also keeps a herd of typical females. Staff use a variety of defrosted samples from the cryobank to fertilize the females. Since 2010, the Ecomusée has raised male offspring as potential breeders until they are 30 months old. At this age, bucks fully express their characteristics and breeding qualities. Good quality bucks make new stocks of semen for the cryobank and are available to breeders to improve biodiversity in the field.
Since 2016, the ASP issues certificates of origin for young animals, giving details of their family origins.
Standard Description: Small/medium size, light boned, with long/medium-length coat, and thick undercoat in winter. The head is small and round with a straight nose and narrow, V-shaped ears, which remain pricked even at rest. Both sexes bear horns: the female’s are fine and parallel, while the male’s are large and impressive. Goat wattles are absent, while beards are standard.
Coloring: A variety of colors and patterns including white, cream, black, gray, and brown, often mixed or in patches.
Height to withers: Bucks 25–30 inches (65–75 cm).
Weight: Bucks 110–130 pounds (50–60 kg); does 65–90 pounds (30–40 kg).
Temperament: Docile, friendly, affectionate, and maternal, they respect fencing and housing.
Great Goats for Yard Maintenance and Making Goat Cheese
Popular Use: Originally multipurpose backyard goats, they are now mainly kept as goats for yard maintenance, or to preserve the breed. New developments include small-scale dual-purpose (meat and dairy), dairy pastoral farming, and organic production. Wethers are increasingly popular for maintenance of open spaces due to their ease of management, excellent capacity for brush clearance, and pleasant temperaments. Herds are still mainly owned by private individuals. However, there are several commercial dairies and professional land clearance businesses now using this breed.
Productivity: Milk yield is approximately 440–550 pounds (200–250 kg) per goat per year. This rich, creamy milk is perfect for making goat cheese, as it yields twice as many solids (5 ounces per pound/300 g per liter) compared to commercial dairy goat breeds.
Adaptability: Thrifty browsers, they thrive on rough and woody forage, and are thorough weed eating goats. They are hardy and well-adapted to the mild and damp oceanic climate. They live outdoors with rudimentary shelter all year round. Naturally resistant to foot-rot and internal parasites, they rarely incur veterinary bills in their local environment. Females are very fertile, and it is easy to detect estrus. They give birth without difficulty and are great mothers. Very few newborns die. Tough and resilient, they live long productive lives.
It Isn’t Really Chèvre des Fossés If: there are black and tan markings typical of chamoisée French Alpine goats. Due to the popularity and wide-spread use of Alpine goats in France, cross-breeding is frequently found.
Owner Quote: “Chèvre des Fossés is a very sturdy breed. Their coat allows them to thrive in winter weather although I highly recommend getting them a shelter. They are very good mothers and give milk which is very rich in both protein and fat. I use them as an ‘organic mower and strimmer [vegetation trimmer]’ on our smallholding and they are very efficient. They are very easy to handle and one of their best assets: they do not jump over fences!” Pauline W., Mayenne, France.
Originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Presented by: Tamsin Cooper www.goatwriter.com.