The Shepherdess of the Cotentin

When Stéphanie won a week’s holiday in the Manche département of Normandy in 2004, she didn’t much like the countryside and the only exercise she got was on her commute on the Paris Métro. Today, her life as a shepherdess of the salt marshes of the Cotentin peninsula is a far cry from her former life as a graphic designer in Paris.

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When Stéphanie first came to this part of Normandy on that holiday in 2004, she was struck by the unique landscape and how beautiful it was. During that week, she met a local shepherd who told her about his work and his very traditional approach to raising sheep.

Over the next couple of years, Stéphanie would return to this area at every opportunity until finally it seemed only logical to come and live here on a permanent basis. She attended agricultural college to learn the basics and, after five years, had a flock of some 180 sheep over two sites just outside the village of Saint-Germain-sur-Ay on the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula.

The lambs raised on the salt marshes in the Manche département of Normandy are unique because they feed only on the grass and herbs of the marshland, rich in nutrients, vitamin E and iodine from the sea water that regularly floods the area. The lambs take longer to grow but are stronger, with long, lean muscles due to all the walking they do in search of the tastiest grass and herbs.

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Part of the land where Stéphanie’s flock stays is an ecologically protected area of marshland. Here Stéphanie has to regularly move her sheep from one end of the land to the other so that the grass has a chance to grow and attract native birds that are in danger of extinction.

Stéphanie sells her lambs to the butcher when they are about a year old. The result is exceptionally good free range meat that has a very a distinctive, naturally salty taste.

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© T. Houyel

Unlike her life as a designer in Paris, here on the salt marshes, Stéphanie feels a great freedom as a shepherdess. The irony being that her livelihood is completely dependent on her flock and that she can’t leave them even for a night. Missing the social interaction of city life, Stéphanie decided to organise guided walks onto the marshland as a way to meet locals and visitors and talk about her life as a shepherdess. She was surprised at how many locals have joined her group walks – having never before ventured out onto the salt marshes for fear that it wasn’t safe, they offer her another view on local life on the Cotentin peninsula.

Embracing her life and work as a shepherdess, Stéphanie has applied her creativity to other aspects of her job. After the sheep’s winter coats are sheared, she dyes the wool and knits colourful wrist warmers and headbands that she sells along with jelly and vinegar that she makes using the herbs from the salt marshes as well as other local products.

Using the tougher meat that the butchers don’t want, Stéphanie also makes sausages that she sells locally. She talks about her life as a shepherdess on her beautifully illustrated blog La Cotentine Moderne and, on (pre-Covid) summer evenings, she has even been known to host parties in her hut, where guests can enjoy live music as the tide rolls in across the bay. Sign me up!

For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourism website.

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