Ouessant Sheep. The perfect sheep for the small holder and novice sheep keeper
Ouessant sheep are the smallest naturally occurring breed of sheep in the world. The rams should be under 50cms (20 inches) and the ewes less than 46cms (18 inches). They originate from the tiny windswept granite island of the same name, twelve miles off the most westerly point of Brittany, France.
The small size of this breed is attributed to the very poor grazing on the island. Originally the islander’s selected black sheep for breeding, as black was the colour worn by married women in poor rural communities in Southern Europe and west of Ireland, until at least the early 1900’s. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century, that some of these sheep were transported to the mainland and kept by a small number of people that used them for grazing their extensive country estates as a novelty breed.
Some were crossed with the mainland sheep to increase their size for meat production, which resulted in some white fleeced sheep. The breed was eventually saved from extinction by a committed group of farmers from northern France, who, together with breeders from the Netherlands and Belgium started up a breeding program.
Apart from their original black colour, Ouessant sheep are available in brown (caramel), white and the much rarer grey. The fleece of a Ouessant sheep is 10% of its bodyweight; in fact they have the most wool per weight of any other European breed. It has a long ‘staple’ which is the name for the length of fibre.
Rams have impressive curled horns with an outward growing tip, ewes are ‘polled’, (no horns) Single lambs are the norm although twins can occur. They are tiny, weighing less than a kilo, but are standing, feeding, and usually running around minutes after they are born. This makes them the ideal sheep for small holders or those new to sheep as minimal interference when lambing is required. The ewes are excellent mothers, and very protective, meaning that they can lamb outside happily.
Their small size means that they can be kept on relatively small pockets of land, ten animals to the acre being the preferred stocking density. Ouessant sheep are easy to keep being a hardy primitive breed with a strong immune system and do not seem to suffer from the same afflictions as regular sheep. Ouessants are also known for their curious and affectionate nature and can be made extremely tame very easily.
As they can thrive on very low quality pasture it makes then a very viable option for those looking to produce their own excellent tasting meat via a low imput system. The meat is lean and very tasty with an excellent texture and not fatty like most commercial bred lamb.
Source: Reproduced courtesy of the Worcester Evening News.