A former Parisian moved to the country, fell in love with goats and let them roam free and multiply. Her winemaking neighbors are not enchanted.
April 14, 2023
Valérie Corbeaux lives on a rocky hilltop in the dry southwest part of France with her herd of goats.
She doesn’t butcher them, or use their milk for cheese. Instead, the former Parisian walks with them, feeds them hay and stays up all night in an ancient stone barn to comfort them when they are sick. They are living creatures, she says, no less worthy of love or freedom than humans.
The problem is the goats keep breeding.
And roaming farther afield, scrambling up onto regional highways and into distant vineyards, where they have been known to nibble on the leaves of vines that form the region’s economic lifeline — Corbières wine.
After they munched through two hectares of her Vermentino vines in 2020, Julie Rolland called Ms. Corbeaux and tried to resolve the issue the country way — woman to woman, agriculturalist to agriculturalist, enthusiast to enthusiast.
Rolland is a former optometrist who took over her parents’ vineyard soon after her mother died. For her, the vines offer more than a vocation — they pulse with personal history.
That first year, Ms. Corbeaux’s insurance paid for her goats’ damage. Since then, Ms. Corbeaux lost her insurance and the problem has grown.
“The problem isn’t the goats; the problem is the person who doesn’t oversee them,” said Ms. Rolland, 42, who compares her daily ritual of phoning one local authority after another to an issue of the French comic book series “Astérix.”
“We are trapped in a pathetic caricature of French administration,” Ms. Rolland said. “I want to scream all the time. There are laws! What are they waiting for?”
Now that spring has arrived, her calls have become more urgent. If the goats eat her vineyards’ tender buds, Ms. Rolland will lose more income and more heritage.
“I’m alone. I can’t patrol all the land,” she said. “Should I buy a gun and take care of it myself? You start thinking crazy things.”
This is a story about French liberty and bureaucracy. It is about different visions of the countryside and nature. It’s about fire management, fights between neighbors and Brigitte Bardot. But mostly, it is about goats.
No one knows exactly how many goats are in Ms. Corbeaux’s herd. From atop her homestead, around 20 miles from Narbonne, Ms. Corbeaux says there are 500.
Down in the vineyards below, her neighbors say many have gone wild, and multiplied. A recent weekend survey estimated “at least 600,” said Stéphane Villarubias, the director of the region’s national forestry office. The problem is they are hard to count, “they pass like clouds, and disappear into the woods,” he added. “We aren’t sure if there are many herds now.”
One thing everyone agrees on: There are too many for one person to control.
“It’s too much work,” said Ms. Corbeaux, calling even 500 “enormous.” At 55 years old, she said, she has heart problems from exhaustion.
“For three years, I’ve been asking for help for my billy goats.”
Ms. Corbeaux wasn’t born a shepherd. She grew up in Paris’ gritty 10th Arrondissement, and ran a computer-software company. At 30, she had an epiphany. “I was earning a lot of money; I was working a lot; and I didn’t have the time to spend it,” she recalled. “I said: ‘A life like this is worthless. I want to be useful.’”
She moved close to Avignon, in southern France, determined to work as an energy healer. But then she clapped eyes on two baby goats at a medieval fair.
“I was hypnotized,” she said. To buy them, she bartered an electric cooler, worth 500 euros, she’d just purchased to start a new job selling wine.
The two became five, then 40. She abandoned all plans of work, and cared for them full time. “They are just my babies,” said Ms. Corbeaux, spreading hay around a section of her stone barn crowded by her adult female goats that she counts at 52, not including the wobbly legged kid born an hour earlier. “I would die for my goats.”
She spent years moving, looking for the ideal place where her goats could “be effective and useful,” she said, “and I could care for them and give them the most natural life possible.”
Finally, through a stroke of luck, she found her current farmhouse and barn on 680 hectares of mostly uninhabited scrubland, and settled in. By then she had 70 goats.
Goats were once common in the bushy, uninhabited area known as the “garrigue.” They were considered living fire retardants because they nibbled flammable shrubs and shortened dry grass, said Luc Castan, the mayor of nearby Roquefort-des-Corbières, whose father raised his village’s last herd in the 1970s, and who fought to reintroduce them last summer as flames ripped through the region. “The fires started once the goats left,” he said.
In this vein, Ms. Corbeaux believed she was bringing back the eco-pasturage tradition. She began receiving European Union grants for the work — totaling about 35,000 euros a year, she says, though they were recently cut.
For four years, she could keep up with her goats by foot. But then her growing group of males started wandering farther afield.
The first complaints from local vintners came in 2019.
“They came more and more regularly, in bigger and bigger groups,” said Philippe Montanié, a vintner, peering through a scope at a group of 10 goats meandering along a row of sauvignon blanc vines near his home.
“It’s been five years we’ve chased them. My employees, that’s all they did in the afternoon. Two just quit. Their profession is wine, not goats.”
In 2021, his insurance company hired an expert who cataloged the damage to 2.5 hectares and estimated his loss at 42,600 euros. Since then, the goats have struck other regions. A field he replanted last summer today appears like a moonscape — no green, no twigs, nothing but rocky soil. He’s put his losses at close to 300,000 euros, including opportunity cost for fields he didn’t replant out of caution.
At least 10 vintners have made formal complaints to the police about damage to their property by Ms. Corbeaux’s goats, according to the local subprefect, or state official overseeing the Narbonne area.
Others, like the owners of Château de Lastours, simply absorbed their losses. “I would rather spend my time selling wine,” said Thibault de Braquilanges, the winery’s manager, who paid 6,000 euros to enclose a vineyard inside a fence.
Ms. Corbeaux said she offered to pay for a similar fence to enclose both Mr. Montanié and Ms. Rolland’s nearby fields. That would be cheaper than enclosing all 680 hectares she rents. But they refused.
“Should we put up walls to keep ourselves safe from gangsters, or put them in jail?” says Ms. Rolland.
Last spring, a legal mediator tried to reach an agreement between three vintners and Ms. Corbeaux — not for compensation, but to ensure the problem stopped. The effort ended in failure.
Since then things have not improved. Her neighbors call her irresponsible and a “pseudo-ecologist” who is harming not just their livelihoods, but the local ecology. Their wineries are all organic, they point out bitterly.
Ms. Corbeaux agrees her goats have done damage and she should pay compensation. But she says she believes that the devastation has been exaggerated for insurance claims. She calls her opponents “thieves” and “bandits” who have used her as a convenient scapegoat — a strange woman who lives alone atop a rocky mesa, surrounded by goats she lets roam free.
“I don’t live like everyone,” she says, adding, “When one wolf attacks, everyone else attacks at the same time.”
In France, hunting associations are responsible for controlling animal populations deemed “pests” — boars in particular. When it comes to bigger, more irregular menaces, like prowling bears, a team of expert hunters called the “louveterie” is called on by the state. In 2021, the hunters shot and killed a wandering herd of cows about 45 miles west of Ms. Corbeaux’s homestead. Their owner also held free-range ideas.
Ms. Corbeaux feared a similar end to her beloved goats. A local mayor threatened as much in an official letter, though he says it was a “bluff” meant to scare her into action. The subprefect says he never authorized such a culling.
Still, seeing the vintners and the hunters against her, Ms. Corbeaux summoned another strong force of rural France — the animal rights activists.
“Prevent the savage slaughter of my 250 scrub-clearing billy goats,” she wrote on the petition she began on change.org last year. More than 46,000 signatures poured in.
These past few months, the goats have become the main topic of discussion in the cafes and restaurants in the nearby terra-cotta roofed villages. Almost everyone has a story.
Anaïs Barthas was dozing as she rode in the car on the way home from her mother’s house one night, when her boyfriend braked suddenly and jolted her awake. “There was a billy goat in the middle of the road,” she said. “It had huge horns.”
Catherine Maître, the mayor of Villesèque-des-Corbières, was roused by a panicked call one recent Sunday morning. A herd was not just on the nearby two-lane highway that clings to the edge of a winding gorge, but inside the small tunnel cut into the rock. She sped there in her car, and honked manically until they scuttled away.
“I haven’t been sleeping at night,” said Ms. Maître, a retired vintner. “I’m so anxious there will be a fatal accident.”
In the end, someone who could relate to Ms. Corbeaux’s love for her animals came to the rescue. The foundation of Brigitte Bardot, the movie star turned animal rights activist, offered a solution in the form of 40,000 euros to build a fence around 160 hectares of the area Ms. Corbeaux rents, to keep the goats in. It also pledged to pay for a team of veterinarians to castrate her male goats, so they stop propagating.
Rémi Recio, the subprefect, also got involved, calling this the biggest case of “wandering livestock” he’s ever seen. Normally, they are resolved within 24 hours.
“We are in a country of liberty,” he said from his office inside the Art Deco prefecture building in Narbonne. “But with liberty comes responsibility. All that is laid out by the law.”
Ms. Corbeaux is facing at least three court hearings in May and June over complaints of damage from vintners, allegations of mistreatment from state veterinarians and charges related to her goats being on the highways.
Two local villages have built pens, filled with hay, to lure any vagrants. Those that Ms. Corbeaux doesn’t claim — and pay for — will be sold or given away, said Ms. Maître, adding that she has a healthy waiting list.
Up atop her rocky perch, Ms. Corbeaux said she hoped the truth about how much damage her goats really caused would emerge in court. She is grateful that a solution was found, but it brings her to tears.
“I’m in love with my billy goats, frankly. I don’t think we have the right to do whatever we want — not to kill them, nor to castrate them,” she said. “We should respect them more than that.”