Breed Profile: Rove Goat

Ancient Pastoral Browsers Become the Most Popular Heritage Breed Goats of Southern France

Breed Profile: Rove Goat

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BREED: Le Rove is a village on the southeastern coast of France, near Marseille, which specializes in a fresh cheese made from milk exclusively from this breed, called la Brousse du Rove. The Rove goat is a distinctive local breed emblematic of the area.

ORIGIN: In 600 BCE, Greek settlers from Phocaea (in modern-day Turkey) founded the Massalia colony, the basis of the city of Marseille. This became one of the principal Mediterranean trading ports. Local legends suggest that goats arrived with the Phocaean settlers, Phoenician maritime traders, or swam ashore when a Greek ship was wrecked off the coast. Alternatively, Rove goats may have been selected from the landrace population of Provençal goats for their dramatic horns and lustrous coats.

map-provence
Map of the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France, based on image by Flappiefh (Wikimedia Commons) CC BY-SA 4.0.

A Long History in Southern France

HISTORY: Around Marseille and surrounding areas, goats have had a role in sheep pastoralism for centuries. Paintings from the nineteenth century show that goats resembling the modern Rove breed accompanied sheep flocks. Wethers led the sheep, while does suckled excess lambs. They provided the shepherd with food (milk and kid meat) during nomadic summer herding in the Alps and pre-alpine heaths. Shepherds prized the local landrace for its magnificent horns, rich coloring, and hardiness.

The Mediterranean is unusual in Europe in that kid meat is traditional fare, especially at Easter. This was mainly a product of spare kids from pastoral shepherds. In addition, a fresh cheese—la Brousse de Rove—made from the milk of these goats became a popular specialty in Marseille, and was the main income of the village of Le Rove in the early 1900s.

Artisan goat cheeses made from Rove goat milk (on the right: Brousse du Rove). Photo by Roland Darré (Wikimedia Commons) CC BY-SA 3.0.

In the 1960s, there was no official record of their existence as a breed. However, local shepherds remembered their presence within flocks from at least the time of their great-grandfathers. Although clearly distinct from other French breeds, without legal recognition, they could easily become extinct. Indeed, flocks were increasingly being transported to pastures in trucks, in which large horns were a disadvantage, rather than on foot. Meanwhile, within dairy farms, improved breeds were already replacing local ones.

The Struggle to Gain Protection

Sheep farmer Alain Sadorge resolved to obtain official recognition for the breed and started forming a herd in 1962. Five years later, the veterinary authority ordered him to slaughter them all. A law had been passed to eradicate herds containing goats testing positive for brucellosis, as a measure to prevent the spread of the disease. While sheep could receive a vaccine, this was not permitted for goats. Not even uninfected herd members could be saved. The breed only survived because some shepherds did not declare their goats to avoid mandatory testing. Sadorge contested the order and the issue was brought to public attention.

goats-leading-sheep
Transhumance: shepherds, goats, and livestock guardian dogs lead flock to new pastures on foot.

During the seventies, Sadorge was accompanied by the Société d’Ethnozootechnie, the nature reserve in the Camargue, researchers, and breeders in an attempt to raise the alarm and prevent the breed’s disappearance. In 1978, the national agricultural institute and veterinary authority agreed to examine their case. Then, in 1979, Sadorge and his supporters formed a society to promote and protect the breed, Association de défense des caprins du Rove (ADCR).

Conservation Through New Ventures

Throughout the seventies and eighties, forest fires had become a problem in the region where neglected forest had been overtaken by brush. Goats had long been forbidden in forested areas, as they were believed to be destructive. Mechanical clearance had been unsatisfactory, so authorities sought other methods. In 1984, Sadorge and 150 Rove goats were commissioned to create and maintain firebreaks in the Luberon nature reserve through managed browsing as a three-year research project. Sadorge then merged his flock with that of shepherd F. Poey d’Avant to continue offering a brush-clearing service.

dairy-herd-browsing
Rove goats browsing “garrigue” (dry heath of southern France) above the village of Le Rove. Photo by Roland Darré (Wikimedia Commons) CC BY-SA 3.0.

In the seventies, urbanites moving to the rural southeast favored hardy regional breeds in their aim for back-to-nature self-sufficiency. Many of these established themselves as Rove pastoralists. A second wave in the nineties included those intent on setting up small dairies for local sales of artisanal cheeses. These movements aided proliferation of the breed, which was found to produce delicious milk on very little input.

Today, several pastoralists continue to take up brush-clearance contracts, while artisan dairies, shepherds, enthusiasts, and kid-meat producers still value the breed. Meanwhile, the ADCR promotes the breed, which has gained the official recognition it needed to receive government protection.

rove-goats-and-sheep
Rove goats leading sheep at pasture.

CONSERVATION STATUS: Recovering, after coming close to extinction. Sadorge’s original census of 1962 estimated a population of 15,000. The Camargue reserve’s census of 1980 revealed only 500 in the whole of France. In 2003, small dairies overtook shepherds as keepers of the majority of the gene pool. In 2014, approximately 10,000 were recorded.

Characteristics of the Rove Goat

BIODIVERSITY: Genetic uniqueness owes much to cultural preferences. While not selected for production, shepherds favored hardy goats of particular appearance and abilities. Despite its distinctive looks, the breed shares genetic similarities to other local French goat breeds. Whereas the corkscrew horns suggest a distinct origin, they could have equally evolved from the Provençal landrace.

rove-goat

DESCRIPTION: A sturdy, mid-sized goat with strong legs, large hooves, and a small, well-attached udder. Horns are long, flattened, and twisted. Ears are large and tilt forward. The coat is short and males have a small beard.

COLORING: A rich, red-brown coat is preferred by shepherds, and is the predominant color. However, black and gray individuals are common and coats are sometimes pied or speckled with white. Dairy breeders encourage this variety.

HEIGHT TO WITHERS: Does 28–32 in. (70–80 cm); bucks 35–39 in. (90–100 cm).

WEIGHT: Does 100–120 lb. (45–55 kg); bucks 150–200 lb. (70–90 kg).

Utility and Fitness

POPULAR USE: Multi-purpose for artisan cheese, meat from dam-raised kids, pastoral flock-leaders, and land clearance. Their milk is used for several popular French cheeses with a protected designation of origin (AOP), including Brousse du Rove, Banon, pélardon, and picodon.

PRODUCTIVITY: Pastoral does raising kids for meat are fully self-sufficient on poor browse, producing 40–66 gallons (150–250 l) of milk per year. Those used for dairy are around 85% self-sufficient on pasture with minimal supplementation and produce 90–132 gallons (350–500 l) per year. The milk yields good quantities of cheese of exceptional and characteristic flavor, having on average 34% protein and 48% butterfat.

hardy-and-strong-walkers
Hardy and strong walkers with compact udders make excellent pastoral and land clearance goats. Photo by Katja (flickr) CC BY 2.0.

ADAPTABILITY: Strong legs and sturdy bodies enable the goats to travel long distances, boldly leading their flocks, and to reach inaccessible brush for clearance. The compact udder is well attached, avoiding injury from being snagged on bushes. They are very hardy within the Mediterranean zone, braving storms, snow, wind, drought, and heat. They are able to thrive on poor quality brush grazing. However, they adjust poorly to damp climates, acid soils, and intensive farming. As a result, they have remained in pastoral systems in the south of France and are rarely found elsewhere.

Sources

  • Association de défense des caprins du Rove (ADCR)
  • Napoleone, M., 2022. Le pastoralisme caprin en Provence: l’histoire, les hommes et les produits. HAL Open Science. INRAE.
  • Danchin-Burge, C. and Duclos, D., 2009. La chèvre du Rove: son histoire et ses produits. Ethnozootechnie, 87, 107–111.
  • Poey d’Avant, F., 2001. A propos d’un rapport sur la Chèvre du Rove en Provence. Animal Genetic Resources, 29, 61–69.
  • Bec, S. 1984. La chèvre du Rove: un patrimoine génétique à sauver.
  • Falcot, L., 2016. La chèvre du Rove: pastoralism, traditions et réalité économique. Ethnozootechnie, 101, 73–74.

Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Rove goats producing milk for la Brousse du Rove cheese in the South of France.

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