-SAMBUCANA SHEEP'S FARM
The Stura Valley. The Stura Valley has always been a strategic link between Italy and France, and it has historically represented one of the ancient “Salt Routes”. Agriculture has played a key role in the local economy for a very long time. Grasslands and extensive rangelands typical of these marginal areas represented a traditional feed source for low-intensity livestock systems. Sheep breeding has always been one of the most important rural activities of this valley.
The valley and its breed of sheep. The autochthonous sheep breed of the Stura di Demonte valley is the Sambucana, locally known as “Demontina”. Its name origins from Sambuco, a small village located in the upper part of the valley. Its origin is still unclear, but it is known that the Sambucana sheep has been introduced in the territory during the 18th century. Rearing this sheep for hundreds of years in poor, rocky and marginal pastures with harsh climate conditions contributed to its successful adaptation to the unfavourable Nowadays, shepherds appreciate the Sambucana especially for its rusticity, agility and robustness. From spring to late autumn sheep flocks are reared in alpine pastures (1,500-2,500 m a.s.l.), without shelters for night or frequent off-season snowfalls. This sheep is able to pass steep slopes through paths carved into the rock and to reach the highest pastures. During winter they are stabled and fed with local hay only.
The Sambucana preservation program. Since 1985 the Mountain Local Administration has started a breed safeguard project by involving the whole valley and especially aged shepherds, witnesses of the original characteristics of the purebred animals. The discovery of a few number of flocks, in which Sambucana ewes have never been crossbred with Biellese rams, gave the Comunità Montana the opportunity to realize the protection program. It is estimated that only a hundred Sambucana purebreds out of a total population of 5,000 sheep survived in the valley. Local authorities and Sambucana sheep breeders founded the consortium Escaroun, term that in Occitan language refers to a small group of sheep that leave the flock to find the highest and best pastures. Supported by a specific European financing, in 1988 the consortium started a genetic selection program and created a centre for the performance test of rams, with the primary objective of recovering the genetic heritage of the Sambucana sheep.
The Ram Centre buys young male lambs from farmers. Each lamb is measured and checked in performance, morphometric and sanitary parameters throughout its growth. During the breeding season, rams that reach sexual maturity are randomly lent to associate shepherds from spring to late autumn. At the end of this period, they are returned to the Ram Centre where they are checked again and evaluated for their suitability for the following breeding season.
Thank to this research, the recovery of purebred individuals was possible, and the characteristic rusticity of the Sambucana sheep, together with the correct financial supports given to pastoral activities, avoided the depopulation of the valley. These conditions allowed also additional possibilities for the employment of young people. Local authorities soon realized that the validity of the entire project would depend on the correct promotion of animal products. The cooperative “Lou Barmaset” (referring in Occitan language to a small shelter built inside rocks) was founded in 1992. Today it gathers almost fifty shepherds, and is responsible for the marketing of lambs bred in the valley (approximately 2,000 per year).
Two official awards further valorise lamb meat production. First, the “Agnello Sambucano Garantito” (Guaranteed Sambucano Lamb) brand, created in 1996 and recognized by the Italian Ministry of Industry. Subsequently, in 2001, the Sambucano lamb was inserted into the “Presidia” list of Slow Food. Moreover, some researches pointed out its meat quality, showing high tenderness and a low fat content.
Additionally, several initiatives were carried out for the safeguard of other Sambucana products. In Europe local production of sheep wool has been severely neglected, as it represents more often a cost than a resource. In fact, the introduction of fine wool from extra-European countries almost completely excluded the autochthonous breeds from the production of textiles. Thanks to the relatively good fleece quality of Sambucana, textiles (sweaters, scarves, and plaids) made with its wool have been produced in collaboration with a firm of the Biella wool district.
Milk has traditionally been a secondary product mainly used for lamb feeding. The derivative typical product is the heavy lamb (locally known as “tardoun”) which remains with the ewe throughout the lactation. However, if lambs are slaughtered at an earlier age (18-20 kg weight) like a milk lamb, the remaining milk is used for “touma” production, a typical cheese characterized by its delicate taste.
Other interesting secondary products, recently developed, are different types of cured meat, such as various kinds of salami and cooked conserved meat.
The Ecomuseum. These products are economically valorised by a cooperative cheese-making factory, created in 2000 together with the Ecomuseum of Sheep Farming, in Pietraporzio village. The Ecomuseum was born to rediscover and preserve the culture and the traditions of pastoralism after the effective safeguarding of the breed. Numerous cultural and educational activities of the Ecomuseum, together with other local initiatives (e.g., Fest of Saints, with a local show and sheep exposition) are able to attract several thousands of tourists in the valley.
The sheep farm. The farm is located in Municipality of Pietraporzio, hamlet of Pontebernardo (1312 m a.s.l.) and it rears only sheep of the Sambucana breed. The farm hosts an average of 200 animals, and is a part of the wider flock of the Escaroun consortium. The production is double, mainly lamb rearing but also wool and cheese production, limited to just a few months per year.
Sheep graze on the surrounding surfaces of the farm in spring and autumn, and on alpine pastures in summer at 2000-2400 m a.s.l. During this period, animals leave their enclosures guided by dogs and shepherds. Here they graze surrounded by electrified fences, which also serve as shelter against wolves during night time. Before alpine transhumance begins, in January and May, the shearing is carried out on the farm. In winter sheep live in stables and receive local hay, with no supplementation except for minerals. There is one stable specifically dedicated to sheep and lambs to wean, and a small stall for weaned lambs and heavy lambs, called "Tardoun". Three people are employed throughout the year in the winter season, two during the Alpine pasture period.
Farmers always use natural service, with rams selected from Pontebernardo Rams Center. Parturitions gather mostly from late September to late October, sometimes in May. Lambs are weaned naturally when they are 3 months old. Every year 10-15% of ewes are changed with an internal restock. The prolificity is of the 147%.
Sambuncana breed. The Sambucana breed is mostly reared in the Stura Valley. It is classified as a medium-large breed: adult weight is of 85-90 kg in males and 65-70 kg in females. The average birth weight of lambs is about 5 kg. Ewes give birth for the first time when they reach 14-15 months.
The head is light, hornless, with horizontal ears; the legs are thin and firm, the back is large with good muscular development. The fleece is cream-white.
-SDSV Struttura Didattica Speciale Veterinaria (Veterinary Teaching Farm/Facility)
The Struttura Didattica Speciale Veterinaria (SDSV) hosts the Teaching Farm of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Torino. It is located beside the agricultural and veterinary university pole in the city of Grugliasco, in close proximity to the Piedmontese regional capital.
The Section of Zootechnics and Food Hygiene operates with five different types of livestock husbandry, including cattle, pigs, sheep, horses and poultry. It also comprises a feed mill, a quarantine barn, an experimental animal room and a surgery room specifically dedicated to research activities.
The Structure cooperates with different Departments and Academic Centers of the University of Torino for numerous research projects, and is an authorized user as well as producing enclosure of pigs and small ruminants. Animals admitted in the farm are used for teaching purposes in the courses of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Production Science. Students take part in the farm activities since their first year, interacting with the animals during the course of practical exercises and training sessions.
Attached to the structure is found the Teaching Slaughterhouse, a CE health mark approved structure for cattle, horses, pigs and small ruminants with didactic and experimental purposes conducted by Teachers from the University of the Studies of Torino as well as other public and private institutions. It also provides, apart from food products, anatomical specimens, organs and tissues for practical sessions.
The farm has vast areas of land used for the self-handling of hay and forages, fenced areas operating as paddocks and pastures for small ruminants.
All animals reared in the structure are controlled by veterinarians and animal technicians, who are in charge of management, structural maintenance, animal nutrition and health care.
At the moment the sheepfold houses sheep of the Biellese breed, but has also hosted different breeds of goats in the past, such as Saanen and Camosciata delle Alpi. The farming is semi-intensive in nature: animals spend autumn and winter months in a stable connected to an external paddock, while spring and summer months are spent on pasture. The faculty pasture covers an area of 1500 squared meters and features a large shelter equipped with feeding troughs. Animals receive feed and hay, while during hot months they graze.
Breedings are managed according to natural photoperiodism: they take place during september-october through natural serving, and parturitions concentrate at the beginning of spring. Lambs are weaned naturally and remain under their mother until they are 3 months old. All animals used for reproduction have been selected for the Scrapie resistance gene. Pharmacological treatments, such as vaccinations and antiparasitary treatments, and obstetric examinations for the evaluation of pregnancies are carried out by faculty veterinarians and students during the course of practical sessions.
The Biellese breed, genetically and morphologically similar to the Bergamasca, was originated in Piedmont. It is predominantly reared in the provinces of Torino, Vercelli and Cuneo. This breed has a prevalent capacity for meat production, but its capacity for the production of milk and wool, utilized in the past for the packaging of mattresses, stuffing and carpets shouldn’t be completely overlooked. Today, however, farmers who choose this breed addressed meet production, specifically milk lambs and castrated.The Biellese is classified as a very large breed, with an average adult weight of over 110 Kg in males and 80 kg in females. Males present a height at the withers of 100 cm while females of 85 cm. The head is hornless, with long pendulous ears; the torso is long and deep, the rump is large and the abdomen voluminous. The fleece is white and covers the neck as well as the legs up to the hock. The skin is clear and the hooves are ambered-yellow. The average birth weight of the lambs varies between 4.5 and 5 kg, and they reach 30 kg within 90 days. The prolificity is of the 140%.
The SDSV farm hosts an average of 45 animals, annually recorded during the months of march-april. On average it hosts 30 breeding ewes, with a restock of 6 animals/year, which means that females are replaced when they are about 5 years old. Birth rate is of 40 lambs/year, with a prolificity of 133%. Admitted in the farm are only genetically tested breeding animals who are resistant to the Scrapie gene: the price for the rams is of 250 euros/animal, while that for ewes is around 200 euros.
Animals are divided into two groups, one seasonal and the other counter-seasonal. Heat is synchronized through pharmacological treatments, and natural service is always utilized, according to a 1:10 ratio of males/females.
The farm produces different types of products: the milk lamb, slaughtered at 50 days with a weight that exceeds 15 kg; the heavy lamb at 6 months and 45 kg, and the castrated at 12 months with a weight of about 60 kg. Animals exceeding the restock, both males and females, are intended for slaughter.
The commercial value of the milk lamb is 12 euros/kg, the heavy lamb of 6 months and the castrated reach 5 euros/kg, while the price for ewes drops at 3 euros/kg.