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All year round, you can discover and appreciate some iconic Breton animals at the Ecomusée du Pays de Rennes. Many of these species, which are part of the region's living heritage, were saved from extinction by the Ecomusée and animal lovers. From the Coucou de Rennes or black Janzé chickens to the Pie Noire Breton cow, Breton horse, Chèvre des Fossés (ditch goat), West French White pig or Ouessant sheep, each animal has its own story to tell.
THE NEW STAR OF THE MARKETS
The Coucou de Rennes chicken narrowly escaped extinction. After the Second World War, the economic recovery plan relied heavily on American chicken breeds. Like other local breeds, the Coucou de Rennes suffered the consequences. A collateral victim of the war, it owes its survival to the Ecomusée and to animal lovers who were attached to the chickens of their childhoods and appreciated its qualities. First is its attractive appearance, with its beautiful coat of grey, white and blue-tinted feathers – the cuckoo plumage from which it gets its name coucou in French – and, above all, its flavour, which has helped re-establish its reputation today.
"Everyone was familiar with the Coucou de Rennes and raved about it, but nobody knew where to find one," explains Jean-Paul Cillard, zootechnician at the Ecomusée. Fortunately in 1988, Jean-Luc Maillard, curator at the Ecomusée, located some of these chickens at André Rouesné's property, a former Rennes-based market gardener who had retired to the Maine-et-Loire region of France with a few chickens in tow.
A DELICIOUS FREE-RANGE CHICKEN WITH A DELICIOUS NUTTY TASTE
A large, elegant chicken like no other. "It's a big free-range chicken with well-developed pectorals, whose meat has a unique texture and nutty taste," explains the Ecomusée's livestock head. "With its beautiful, elegant coat and cuckoo plumage, it's a very handsome chicken."
Thanks to the dedication of breeders, renowned restaurateurs and farmers, this symbol of Rennes has become a popular choice one again at markets and on chefs' tables. It is sold at the Marché des Lices market in Rennes notably by Paul Renault, a poultry farmer from Louvigné-de-Bais.
Of course, for the Ecomusée, it's not just about saving a threatened species but promoting the development of the entire sector to ensure its long-term survival. "If a breed no longer has any economic prospects, it simply remains a showcase species perpetuated by a purely emotional bond," states Jean-Paul Cillard. "The Coucou de Rennes chicken is a part of our culinary heritage; it is mentioned in ancient recipes by Simone Morand."
This emblem of Rennes is real beauty to behold at the Ecomusée. The history and revival of the Coucou de Rennes is also the subject of a book published by the Presses Universitaires de Rennes.
THE GUARDIAN OF BEEHIVES AND ORCHARDS
Another Breton poultry breed, the black Janzé chicken, had completely disappeared. The only thing left was the description of a "black chicken with brown eyes, which lays white eggs and has short legs". In the 1990s, breeders came across some specimens matching this description at a former farm, but there were no cocks. The Ecomusée managed to locate a strain in the Landes region, from which they were able to obtain something called a 'phenotype'. This, in turn, put the black Janzé chicken back on the path to the chicken coop. And while its meat is renowned just like its cousin's (also from Janzé), it also plays another function.
A PREDATOR OF ASIAN HORNETS
"It's a chicken that is renowned for being quite wild. It used to be known as the 'hedge chicken' and was left free to roam." What makes it so special? "It flies everywhere and finds its own food," explains the Ecomusée's zootechnician.
It is a prized addition to any orchard because it plays an important role in hunting unwanted insects, just like pheasants. It can coexist alongside tits, which used to nest in apple trees and protect the fruit from harmful insects. Another more recently discovered advantage of the black chicken is that it preys on the Asian hornets responsible for attacking beehives. It also plays a surprising role in removing ticks from sheep.
The black Janzé chicken, which also improves the soil in orchards by scratching it and fertilising it with its droppings, is a truly useful sidekick that has always been appreciated by older generations. "The chickens protected farms against any adders and snakes that ventured a little too close. We'd forgotten about its role as a farmyard regulator," adds Jean-Paul Cillard.
THE PRIDE OF BREEDERS WITH ITS IMPRESSIVE STATURE
This animal was displaced from its original home in the French countryside by tractors. The Breton horse – otherwise known as the Draft Breton or Postier Breton – has made a comeback thanks to the horse and carriage competitions organised by the Ecomusée, which have helped re-popularise the species, ensure its reproduction and showcase its impressive stature (it can measure up to 16 hands and weigh up 950 kg).
The Breton horse was one of the first draft horse breeds in France, born from a crossbreed with strong English trotters in the 19th century. The Draft Breton was the heaviest horse and was used to work the fields. The Postier Breton, meanwhile, was the lighter animal and was used to transport the post and travellers, as well as in the military. Today, some communities still use this horse to take children to school by carriage. It is also often present in towns or at festivals to give fun horse-drawn carriage or gypsy caravan rides.
THE CHAMPION OF LOCAL DISTRIBUTION NETWORKS
The Pie Noire Breton cow is the smallest French cattle breed. With short legs, it is a seaside breed from the peninsulas; a typically Celtic and hardy species that has been shaped by and for the local land. With its black and white coat, it sports the colours of the Breton flag and has become emblematic of the region.
500,000 COWS IN 1900, REDUCED TO JUST 300 BY THE 1970S
This species also came close to extinction despite once being the most common cow in Brittany. In 1900, its numbers stood at 500,000. However, by the 1970s, just 300 remained. This was enough to send alarm bells ringing among Breton farmers, who set up the first conservation plan for a French cow. Ousted by the more productive Frisian cow, it nevertheless has many assets that are being rediscovered today. In parallel, new farming models that are less focused on productivity are also emerging.
"Yes, it produces less milk, but the milk it produces is rich in fat and protein. It also has a remarkable life expectancy; it's not uncommon to see them live to be over 20 years old," explains the zootechnician. "It also enables farmers to make the most of coarse feed, such as hay, beetroot and grass. It eats a little of everything and doesn't rely on imported soya-based feed."
THE MASCOT OF THE 2017 PARIS INTERNATIONAL AGRICULTURE SHOW
It has found its place in family-sized farms, which are characterised by small herds, local distribution networks and direct sales. The Pie Noire has revived a rural economy, with butter and cheese being sold directly at markets as well as its high-quality meat. Everyone's a winner from an environmental and economic viewpoint. It's the symbol of a new economic model that is more in line with organic farming and of a new vision of livestock breeding that takes animal welfare and the environment into account. So it's no coincidence that the 2017 Paris International Agricultural Show chose the Pie Noire as its mascot!
Une « biquette » tout-terrain
The Chèvre des Fossés (literally ‘ditch goat’) is another great tale of a species that would have become extinct without the Ecomusée's help. When it opened, this agro-pastoral park hadn't heard of any Breton goats. But there was one beautifully coloured species, with long hair and a lopsided smile! This hardy goat, which lived outside, maintained embankments and used to provide milk for infants on farms. Its name was very fitting: the Chèvre des Fossés (ditch goat). This ‘poor man's cow’ did a bit of everything in the countryside. The farmers were very attached to it and the grandmothers of the family used to look after it.
One of them, Aubépine, was found and bought for a fortune. She was then introduced to some billy goats from Cap de la Hague in order to ensure her legacy lived on at the Ecomusée. This goat species was rather nomadic, as it populated parts of Brittany, Normandy and the Pays-de-la-Loire regions. It has much in common with the Pyrenean goat. Breeders in Béarn used to travel to Paris with their herds regularly, before heading over to the Normandy coast (to Deauville or Trouville) to sell their goats' milk on the beaches. It’s an all-terrain goat in every sense of the term!
THE SMALLEST SHEEP IN THE WORLD
This sheep is native to the pebble beaches and coastlines of Brittany. A large colony lived on the isle of Ushant (Ouessant in French), hence its name. Its small size and tiny horns are its defining features, along with its black colouring. It was replaced by larger sheep, which gradually took its place. Had it not been for château owners on the mainland conserving this friendly animal to maintain their parks and gardens, it would have become extinct. Thanks to the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in Paris and a conservation association (the Groupement des Éleveurs de moutons d'Ouessant – GEMO), the Ouessant sheep was protected and introduced to the Ecomusée when it opened in 1994.
Twenty years later, the Ecomusée's herd is one of today's largest, with 40 females. Some sheep made their way to Paris to keep public lawns at bay, while others left for Germany and Portugal. Their task? To be real ‘eco-mowers’! Ouessant sheep are the kings of eco-pasture, perfect for maintaining green spaces. It has stayed true to its hardy roots, and only carries one lamb at a time. Bretons have become very fond of this small but mighty ‘pet’!
THE BRETON ‘FAMILY HEIRLOOM’
Another animal that particularly impresses Ecomusée visitors is the West French White pig. The pig is an iconic animal in the region. On farms, it was called ‘the family heirloom’. Pork was a source of nutrition in winter back when farms were self-sufficient and practised mixed farming with a balanced range of animals: one or two cows, a pig, a goat and some chickens were enough to feed a Breton family and stock the local markets.
Pork is a part of this history and of the region's traditional gastronomy. Without pork, you wouldn't be able to savour Rennes's speciality: the famous galette-saucisse! Traced back to an ancient Celtic breed, the West French White pig has charming floppy ears and is perfectly adapted to living outside. Its size often surprises children: the sow can weigh up to 350 kg and the boar, 450 kg. Its Norman cousin – the Bayeux pig with its very unique dark spots – almost became extinct after the war. It, too, is conserved at the Ecomusée.
Breton animals are not the only focus of the Ecomusée du Pays de Rennes. A total of around 20 species from Brittany but also from the entire north-west of France, such as the Cotentin donkey or the Normandy goose for instance, are represented here and thrive on the former farm's 20 hectares of land. Today, the Ecomusée plays a significant role in genetic conservation and thus contributes to the preservation of plant and animal biodiversity in a town that was elected the capital of biodiversity in 2017. The Breton species that live on the site are part of a heritage that needs to be protected, just like other endangered animals around the world.
A LIVING HERITAGE TO WHICH EACH AND EVERY BRETON IS TIED
These species have been moulded by the land and selected by farmers throughout the centuries. They are testament to the history of the development of rural society. "Each and every Breton is naturally tied to these domestic species," points out Jean-Paul Cillard, livestock head. While the aim is to showcase these various species in one place, the Ecomusée's role doesn't stop there. It also helps perpetuate associated agricultural sectors by working with breeders, producers, researchers and restaurateurs to keep this heritage alive.
For all of these reasons and to enjoy the temporary exhibitions that are regularly held there (like this one on entertainment and leisure activities, available until 27 August 2017), the Ecomusée is well worth a visit during your trip to Rennes. It is an idyllic place on the city's doorstep that's just waiting to be discovered, especially by children who always adore visiting farm animals!