llama barrouxThe official name ("Experimental Llama Breeding Farm") sounds a little cold and clinical. But, hidden away in the wooded foothills of Mont Ventoux, this peaceful place where time seems to have stood still is enchanting to visit.

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You wouldn't normally expect to find llamas in Provence. These South American animals are here thanks to the energy and vision of one man: Pierre-André Scherrer.

When he arrived in the region in the late 1970s, his 33 hectare / 82 acre plot was largely planted with cherry trees. But the orchard proved expensive and exhausting to run and, conscious of the fire risk, he decided to clear the land.

At first Pierre-André used goats as living lawnmowers. It's a practice common in southern Provence: click here to read about the goats (and goat's cheese) of Le Rove, near Marseille.

But then in 1984 he got the chance to acquire three llamas from the Natural History Museum in Paris. And these adaptable, independent, intelligent animals turned out to be super-efficient.

They're tall, agile and ready to eat all the many combustible plants in the area. On the other hand they don't pull up the grass, munch on edible herbs or strip the bark off trees. And, as they don't have hooves, they don't churn up the soil.

marie scherrer llamas barrouxPioneering at the time, Pierre-André's idea has since been adopted elsewhere. Llamas have even been recruited by the French Air Force to keep down the brush on one of its bases! They're also effective guard animals.

Marie, pictured, joined him at the farm in 1986 and now runs the project alone (her husband died in 2009). She has between twenty and thirty llamas and, as well as looking after them, weaves beautiful fabrics from their soft, silky coats.

We went to meet the llamas in a nearby field. They're gentle and naturally curious and small groups of visitors can easily get up close to them. Though most children will remember how Captain Haddock was spit on by a llama in the Tintin books, they won't do this to you unless provoked!

It's a matriarchal herd with one older female at its head. If you're lucky, you might see a cria (baby). Llamas breed all year round, so you don't necessarily have to be there in the spring.

The sex life of the llama is interesting: copulation might last as long as 45 minutes and gestation almost a year. Then the birth happens quickly, and the female will hum to her new-born cria.

But it's not long before she is ready to breed again and so, to avoid being over-run by llamas, Marie keeps her males llamas in a separate enclosure. All but one of them are neutered.

Unlike other llama farms in Provence such as Aix by Llama, Marie doesn't organise walks with the animals and children shouldn't touch them, let alone ride them.

But she does offer another bonus: a visit to the old barn where she weaves her cloths using a traditional spindle and spinning wheel and an enormous and magnificent, century-old loom, pictured.

weaving loom barrouxHanging from the ceiling beams are skeins of wool dyed with natural vegetable tints such as madder and walnut.

Each llama produces about a kilo / 2.2 pounds of wool from a shearing and Marie doesn't shear them every year, otherwise she'd have too much fibre to process. This is a tiny, artisan operation, done for love rather than commercial profit.

She makes shawls, cushions and other clothing as well as large-scale tapestries out of the llama wool, sometimes mixed with other natural fibres such as silk and linen.There were only one or two items for sale when we were there, but they were exquisite.

Marie talks passionately and fascinatingly about her work and a full visit takes between an hour and ninety minutes, including a little film. But (and here's the snag for non-francophone visitors) her tours are in French only.

However, even if you don't understand French, you can still go around the farm, watch the animals and see the workshop and a demonstration of spinning and weaving techniques without the explanations. This would take around twenty minutes.

It's a lovely excursion for families (Marie suggests that it's most suitable for children over seven). You must telephone ahead to book a tour and there's a small charge.

If by any chance you read French and would like to find out more, Pierre-André Scherrer has written a book which you can buy here: it's called Des Lamas en Provence.

Where: La Ferme des Lamas du Barroux, 685 chemin de Choudeirolles, 84330 Le Barroux. Tel: (+33) 4 90 65 25 46. Website for Les Lamas du Barroux

The llama farm is 37 km / 23 miles north-east of Avignon. Take the D938 out of the village of Le Barroux towards Malaucène, and turn right just after the Caveau de Beaumont de Ventoux wine co-op. The farm is a little hard to find along a narrow unmade track, but it's worth the effort!

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Photo credits: All images © RWS for Marvellous Provence.



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