A show with something to crow about

24th September 1999 at 01:00
When the cocks welcome the sunrise at Yves Biename's farm in Normandy, the noise must be wonderful. He has dozens and dozens of them, with many different breeds and just as many different "cock-a-doodle-doos". He also has dozens of gobbling turkeys, squawking geese, as well as ducks and hens and hundreds of quieter animals such as rabbits, pigeons and goats.

Monsieur Biename's 20-hectare farm is a living museum, the Musee Vivant de la Basse-Cour. He has collected many rare breeds of farmyard animals from all over Europe - nothing as big as horses or cattle but the many smaller animals that used to be kept for the dinner table or to supplement farm incomes during the winter.

The Musee Vivant is set in a gorgeous valley with beautiful views, not far from Lisieux. M Biename himself supervised the restoration and landscaping of the farm, which included moving the 15th-century farmhouse a few hundred metres. Walkways covered with lush climbing roses offer welcome shelter on hot days.

Special fuss is made of the cockerels. There are many elaborate types, some with sprays of tail feathers that would make a peacock envious. In one of the exhibition rooms there is a fascinating mural showing the place of the cockerel in history, particularly its emotional symbolism in France. The artwork is outstanding, as it is throughout the Musee.

The word "elaborate" could equally apply to the many turkey breeds and to some amazing pigeons and rabbits. The reaction is not so much "Aah!' as "Wow! Just look at that!" Some animals are put through their paces in what Monsieur Biename calls "Les spectacles". A chap dressed in a peasant smock has hens and pigeons flying through hoops and onto perches. He has rabbits running a sort of steeplechase but these "spectacles" are neither tricks nor cruel. They are creatures being put through their paces in order to show their natural movements and flight patterns.

The "peasant" thanks everyone, tells them where the geese display will take place and, as we wander down the hill, he releases the pigeons to fly back to their home perches, skimming over the spectators at just above head height.

Moments later the peasant reappears dressed as a shepherd. He has a black dog with him and they go into a meadow full of geese and start to herd them around. The geese seem to move as one, like a ballet chorus line.

Monsieur Biename's initial idea for a display with the geese involved flying them, but they crashed into trees and telephone lines. Then someone told him that geese can neither see nor fly particularly well.

The Musee Vivant is a stark reminder of how empty, uninteresting, and silent European farmyards have become. Local smallholders now pester Monsieur Biename when his animals and birds are about to produce offspring - part of the widespread reaction against factory farming.

Kevin Berry

The Musee Vivant de la Basse-Cour is 5km from Lisieux on the D579. There are steep slopes but staff are very helpful with disabilities if forewarned. Tel: (00 33) 02 31 62 78 78. Group rates: 35f for adults, 30f for students

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