I only realised the sheer size of France and the vastness of its farmed land when I once drove from Calais to the Pyrenees, camping in rural France along the way. Seeing French cities is a joy; experiencing the French countryside is even better. The use of farm dogs in France is very different from ours but the dogs themselves are fascinating. Only comparatively recently have we in Britain come to appreciate and then value the herding or herd-protecting breeds of France. But from encouraging figures in 1986: 136 bouviers des Flandres and 274 Briards, Kennel Club registrations fell in 2018 to 36 bouviers (strangely placed in the Working not the Pastoral Group) and 94 Briards, plus 23 Beaucerons, 6 Labrits and 12 Picardy Sheepdogs. It is claimed I know that the bouvier des Flandres (or drover’s dog of Flanders) is Belgian but the breed developed when Flanders, a medieval principality spanning what is now Holland, France and Belgium, was French, although there was once Spanish influence there too. I always think of the bouvier des Ardennes, as the Belgian drover’s dog, although again the Ardennes region occupies what is now Belgium, Luxemburg and northern France.
Up to 1000BC, something like four-fifths of Europe north of the Alps and the Pyrenees was covered by dense forest and over the next two hundred years extensive clearance by farmers provided the basis for new growth through local trade,notably from the fairs dating from Charlemagne . This growth brought an unprecedented demand for good herding dogs, both to work the herds and get them to market. Bruges became the capital of medieval Flanders and was the chief European wool manufacturing town as well as its chief market; until its harbour silted up in the late 15th century it was the link between the Baltic, the North Sea and the Mediterranean. It would have been surprising therefore to find Flanders without really good sheep-driving dogs. In the south, Lyon played a key role in linking the inland market-towns with the ports further south. Again, the need for dogs to drive the sheep and cattle was considerable.
The berger de Brie has the same shoulder height of the bouvier but not the forequarter bulk. I get depressed when I read again the old fallacy of this breed originating in a barbet-beauceron cross, based on appearance presumably but denied entirely by history. The Briard has existed in its own right for as long as the Beauceron and belongs to a type which breeds true all over Europe. Of far greater interest is the observation that this breed-type appears wherever the Celts settled. The most numerous of the French sheepdog breeds, the Briard has, like many of the multi-talented herding breeds, been used widely, as a police-dog, Red-Cross dog, sentry-dog and ammunition-carrier. Dogs like the Briard are alleged to have been utilised by Napoleon to drive livestock during his Egyptian campaign; the Egyptian sheepdog of more modern times, the Armant, being coincidentally very like a Briard. The Marquis de Lafayette brought dogs of this type to north America to work with sheep. The Club Francais du Chien Berger de Brie was not formed however until 1897, despite one of the breed being placed first in the class for sheepdogs at the first French dog show held in Paris over thirty years earlier. In the modern breed I have concern still about their temperament especially excessive shyness, having learned long ago the deceptive and unpredictable nature of this feature. But there seems to be a responsible breed club in Britain working to improve every aspect of the breed here.
The French herding breed which impresses me the most in that country however is the Beauceron, a strapping handsome dog with the majesty of the Akita and the alertness of the Dobermann. (I strongly suspect that Herr Dobermann resorted to Beauceron blood in the creation of his breed). Black and tan or harlequin and sometimes dubbed ‘bas rouge’ or red stockings because of its red-tan legs, the Beauceron is little known outside France but is attracting interest in the United States where a breed club has been formed and a stud-book opened. A big, robust, powerful, muscular but not heavy breed, 26″ at the withers, very strong-minded and rather fierce in appearance, it is one of the few breeds whose strength of will you can sense and whilst it lacks the “strong eye” of our working sheepdogs, its work with cattle is in the brusque no-nonsense style. They have been used by both the French army and the police and my French friends tell me they were originally hunting dogs used on boar and stag, representing an ancient French type. The harlequin factor is found in hounds, as the Dunker hound, the Great Dane and the Dachshund illustrate; the “merling” of the Beauceron is more like the hound-colouration than that found in collies. The berger de Beauce is an impressive cattle-dog as well as sheepdog.