La Bergerie Nationale, a small farmer’s paradise at the gates of Paris
Approaching Rambouillet (Yvelines), about fifty kilometers south-west of Paris, the bustle of the capital decreases and finally dies out. Before the arrival of the great plains of Beauce, the centuries-old forest deploys its oxygen, its greenery and its calm. But in this exceptional protected natural space, the hand of man has not remained at rest. Bordering the park of the castle, the National Sheepfold has been carrying out its agricultural activities since 1783, when King Louis XVI set up a farm that he wanted to be exemplary near one of his favorite hunting lodges.
In this XVIIIe The century was coming to an end, the hour was for agromania and the nobles, inspired by the physiocrats, dreamed of being modern farmers and models. The king is no exception. He gave the new institution the task of experimenting with the adaptation of animals from abroad to improve French breeds. In Rambouillet, species of all kinds will flock: cows from Switzerland, Angora goats from Turkey, donkeys from Malta, sheep from Africa… But the star of the place will be the herd of Merino sheep, arrived from Spain on foot in 1786.
At the beginning of the XIXe century, the great merinization of the French sheep herd desired by Napoleon Ier will be organized from Rambouillet. A few decades later, Napoleon III will pursue this policy internationally, making Merino an ambassador and a lever of influence for France in some forty countries, as far as Peru and Australia.
A unique farming and royal heritage
From this rich history, the National Sheepfold today retains an important built heritage. It unfolds in two vast sets, the royal farm and the imperial farm, with 5,500 m2 of roofs and 6,000 m2 of listed or listed façades. The royal farm, the oldest, can be discovered from the monumental entrance portico. It presents a square and airy plan, lined with tall buildings of classical style, in stone and brick. A sober and imposing dovecote dominates the place. A little further on, the imperial farm, inaugurated in 1805, still hosts the famous Merinos today.
The two architectures of these model farms have been designed to optimize agricultural activity and promote hygiene: tiled and sloping ground to facilitate building maintenance, multiplication of openings and use of plaster for better ventilation, absence of lean-tos and spacing of constructions to prevent the spread of fires…
A significant load for the site
For the National Sheepfold, a national public institution under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture, this heritage is today an asset, but also a substantial burden. “It is clearly a heritage disproportionate to our means», recognizes Roland Delon, its director. Especially since the site is paradoxically penalized by its status, which deprives it of subsidies from the Ministry of Culture allocated for the restoration of historical monuments.
Consequently, the National Sheepfold must find private funding to launch targeted restoration operations, as is currently the case for the dovecote. It is however a program of magnitude that this heritage would need. « In the imperial farm, all the roofs are in danger », worries Aloïs Veuillet, project manager for built heritage, pointing to the roofs covered with moss.
A farm conducted in organic farming
At the gates of the Paris conurbation, the Bergerie Nationale should however be considered as an ideal site to promote agroecology among city dwellers, with its 260 hectares conducted in organic farming, its 70 dairy cows and its 450 ewes. Because if the farm followed production methods, turning to intensive agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s when its herds were fed American corn and soybeans, it is now an example of conversion. “We started growing organically in the early 2000s and all of our production, except for one herd, has been certified for seven years”says Vincent Daniel, project manager.
Upstream, animal feed is provided by meslin grown on site; downstream, processing and sales are done via local short circuits. “We can feed our herds without depending on foreign haywelcomes Vincent Daniel. While the war in Ukraine and inflation are creating major tensions in the agricultural world, our autonomy is an asset. »
At the National Sheepfold, we don’t just apply these good practices, we also teach them. Since the creation on site of the first school of shepherds in 1794, the site has always ensured an important training activity. Today, about 400 students are trained in breeding, zootechnics or horse trades. With its team of agricultural engineers, the institution also provides continuing education and works with a network of agricultural colleges. “We can support our speech by showing a real organic farm that works and is profitable. It is more convincing for the recalcitrant”, smiles Vincent Daniel.
To the delight of little city dwellers
For the general public, welcomed throughout the year, there is no need for great demonstrations to make people understand how virtuous the project is. Just watch the children have fun among the sheep, discover the milking of the cows or taste the delicious farm products in the friendly Café Mérinos, which offers catering and takeaway sales.
Here, from taste to hearing, from sight to smell, the senses attest that a new agricultural model can be invented, with respect for humans and animals. It is even through the soles of the feet that the visitor can reconnect with nature… Since last summer, the Montorgueil garden, laid out around the farm, has been offering a sensory journey that can be done barefoot. Young and old are invited to stroll along a pretty green circuit, alternating beds with various textures: grass, hemp straw, wood chips, clay balls, sand, slate flakes or cocoa pods, not to mention wool. of merino… “It stings, it’s weird, but it’s good! »exclaim the intrigued and captivated children.
With a lot of creativity and a lot of resourcefulness, the team of the National Sheepfold strives to bring this place to life with simplicity and conviviality. This summer, you can discover the artistic exhibition of Steeven Salvat, hosted in residence, who has installed large poetic animal frescoes in several points of the sheepfold. This weekend, the Bergerie festival will offer concerts and entertainment, the proceeds of which will go to the restoration of the dovecote.
Important investments to ensure the future
For the future, the Bergerie Nationale is not lacking in ideas, but they would require significant investment. « The next step would be to redo the buildings of the farm which date from the days of the intensive farm and no longer correspond to our current orientation and our needs.explains Roland Delon. This would provide better living conditions for animals, save energy and better welcome the public, but there are several million euros…»
Who will support the National Sheepfold in its unique project, combining agricultural activity, education and mediation? The future will tell, but in recent years the exceptional quality of the site has attracted alternative projects which have raised quite a few concerns. In addition, relations are cold, and sometimes tense, with the national domain of Chambord, which in 2018 inherited the surrounding land, formerly allocated to presidential hunts, and on which the National Sheepfold now depends to exploit its crops.
In a France faced with the urgency of the ecological transition, the National Sheepfold deserves to be supported and secured in its missions. Because here the « world after », so often invoked since the pandemic, has planted its seeds. Better, it started to germinate.
Celebrate and Restore
Saturday July 9, from 3 p.m., the National Sheepfold offers a day of festivities.
The entrance is free. In the program :
– From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.: musical and cultural events in the Montorgueil garden.
– From 4 p.m.: workshops and debates with the “Citizen Banquets”
– From 6 p.m.: entertainment and concerts in the royal court, followed by the grand ball of the small Parisian orchestra, then by a fireworks display at midnight.
– The profits will go to the restoration of the dovecote for which a public subscription is open with the Heritage Foundation.
Info. : www.fondation-patrimoine.org