About the Casta
We have been raising Castas since the winter of 2015. When the first three heifers arrived, skittish and incredibly sensitive to their new environment, we knew virtually nothing about their precarious status, their history and truly iconic place in the folklore of the central French Pyrenees.
All we knew was that this was reputedly a very ancient breed, who seemed to be a living link between the modern breeds so pummelled by insatiable market forces and the Auroch, the primeval, wild ancestor of all native cattle breeds still found in Europe today.
This presence of an almost wild depth of sensitivity, of an instinct not diluted by centuries of selective breeding [as has happened with many other breeds], has allowed us a very privileged glimpse into a world untroubled by thought and speculation. The Castas, by way of their natural transparency, are for us a spotless mirror, in which all of who we think we might be is bounced right back.
Origins and history
It is said that the Casta breed originated in the Val d'Aran in northern Spain, at the sources of the Garonne river and are the result of the encounter between two types of Spanish and French cattle – those of the Iberian tribes in what is now the Central Spanish Pyrenees and the Celtic tribes who inhabited what is now the Central French Pyrenees.
Whatever its true origin, this iconic race of the Pyrenees is genuinely very ancient and is one of the first races cited in the history of the cattle breeds of South of France. At the beginning of the 20th century, it populated the high-altitude Pyrenees, from the Tarbaise region to Foix. In France today, it is traditionally recognized as originating from two distinct regions:
The valley of Aure in the Hautes-Pyrénées (type "Aurois")
The basin of St-Girons and Couserans in Ariège (type "St-Gironnais")
By the early 1980s, the Casta breed faced a very real threat of extinction. In 1983, the number of females was down to a mere 76, spread between 12 different herds.
Their decline it seems was a side-effect of the general process of livestock specialization, when economic, commercial, technical and administrative pressures began to influence which breeds farmers selected.
However, a small number of impassioned breeders, acted to ensure the conservation of as many females as possible.
By 2010, despite the efforts of this small group of truly dedicated breeders and conservationists, the population of females had risen to just 208 individuals in 39 herds. By 2015, the population consisted of 336 females. The number of herds had increased to 52.
The Castas are typically known for an incredible rusticity. They are regarded to be of a robust temperament, being both vigorous and energetic and, through centuries of exposure to the extremes of the mountainous climate in the Central Pyrenees, are what could be called a quite ‘weather-resistant’ breed! The rich milk produced by the incredibly maternal mothers gave rise to the manufacture of the celebrated Bethmale cheese. The oxen, alive and alert, were employed in wagons, or for the logging of wood in the mountains. Since 1986, the breed has been used in several nature reserves in France as a tool for the management of wetland habitats.