* Drenthe Heath Sheep: Oldest Sheep Breed of The Netherlands
The Dutch Drenthe Heath Sheep
The Netherlands have 5 different native Heath Sheep breeds of which the Drenthe Heath Sheep is the oldest. These sheep were roaming our country as far back as the 14th century.
It's the only native horned breed in my country and rams as well as ewes have horns. The sheep can survive harsh winters, it's multi colored, self supporting and it's one of the most beautiful sheep breed I know. They're still very close to nature and hardly lost their natural instinct.
I've been raising these sheep for over 30 years now.
5 Native Heath Sheep Breeds
The Netherlands has 5 native heath sheep breeds
Sheep were kept in big herds
Short History of the Drenthe Heath Sheep
Sheep are one of the oldest domesticated farm animals. The Drenthe Heath Sheep is the oldest breed of the main land of Western Europe. Sheep with great similarities were found in the Dutch province Drenthe as far back as about 4000 BC and it probably came along with French immigrants. This breed is therefor the last remnant of the way sheep were held as far back as 6000 years.
In the old days The Netherlands were covered with big heath fields of which you can still find larger and smaller areas scattered throughout the country. Contrary to the more improved breeds, these sheep are capable of surviving on the arid heath fields.
In the last centuries these Drenthe Heath Sheep have contributed in a large way to the improvement of Agricultural grounds.
Drenthe Heath Sheep in The Netherlands
Why the Province of Drenthe?
The Drenthe Heath Sheep were named after the Province of Drenthe in The Netherlands, because it was there that they were found most. Drenthe is a province that still harbours the largest heath fields and as the farming land was poor, the farmers were poor, so they used the sheep to fertilize their fields and it had to be a sheep that could survive the harsh winters on little extra food.
Selection occurred mostly in a natural way. The most hardened sheep survived, just like it happens with animals living in the wild. Ewes who rejected their lamb, got slaughtered for food. Those sheep needed endurance, because they had to roam the heath fields for hours and hours to get their bellies filled.
Sheep poop a lot and that's one of the reasons they were kept.
Drenthe Heath Sheep had to fertilize the land
Sheep poop mixed with heather makes a good fertilizer
The farmers in Drenthe were poor people and the soil in the Province of Drenthe wasn't the best soil to grow crop in, so they had to fertilize it a lot and they used the sheep to do that. Artificial fertilizer hadn't been invented yet.
During the day the sheep of different owners were joined together and the shepherd and his dog wandered off all day across the heather fields so the sheep could eat their belly full. At night they were brought back to their rightful owners and put into the sheep fold, in which they had spread cut peat. The sheep would poop on the cut peat which was layered over and over. Those sheep folds were deep litter houses. At the end of winter, they got the menuire out and it was spread over the land. When it wasn't too cold and freezing, the sheep slept outside on the land.
Each farmer had a smaller or bigger herd of sheep.
Old Postcards of the Dutch big HerdsClick thumbnail to view full-size
We nearly lost this beautiful old Breed after the Artificial Fertilizer was invented.
Invention of the Artificial Fertilizer made this breed lose their economic value
After the invention of the Artificial Fertilizer in 1903, the Drenthe Heath Sheep lost their economic value. They were not the number 1 fertilizer 'machines' anymore and as this breed was not developed for producing a big load of meat, meaning they're rather small and slim sheep, the farmers were looking for another way to make more money out of their sheep.
In the South of the Province Drenthe where the soil was quite a bit richer and more nourishing, they kept another sheep breed, called the Schoonebeeker . Farmers started to cross bred their Drenthe sheep with those Schoonebeekers in order to get more meat which they could sell at a higher price.
What happened was the development of a new type of sheep, which was heavier-built, which gave more meat on the lambs, but cross breeding is never a good thing for the original breeds. Slowly but steadily the old type of Drenthe Heath Sheep and Schoonebeeker were disapearing to the point of almost extinction.
The almost extinction of two beautiful breeds
The Rescue Alert
We got alerted in time and organized the rescue team
In 1977 a newly founded organisation called Association for Original Dutch Livestock Breeds , made a country wide inventory of what was left of the original native Dutch livestock breeds, including the sheep. The outcome startled them, because the Drenthe Heath Sheep as well as the Schoonebeeker had almost vanished beyond repair so to speak.
It took however another decade before the Dutch Breeder Association the Drenthe Heath Sheep was founded in 1985 and I was in it from the start. At first it was an Association only for the horned sheep, but within a short time we were able to also take the Schoonebeeker under our protection, because it was a breed originated in the Province Drenthe too.
A breed standard was made up from what we read/heard/saw of how the original breed must have looked like. Photographs were not available, only a few drawings, so we had to go with books (one antique book actually) and hearsay from very old shepherds. We started slowly with a wide breeding base. There weren't very many sheep of the old type left and we had to be careful with a too close inbreeding because that would have made things even worse. Each year a selection was made to rule out the bad ones and keep the good (or as good as they got at that time) ones for breeding and we have been doing this for the last 30 years.
Old type Drenthe Heath Sheep Ewe
Old type Drenthe Heath Sheep Ram
Starting my own Flock of sheep in 1984
I'm breeding these sheep for 30 years now, have served 9 years on the board, I keep the pedigree book since 2000 (lots of work) and I'm a sheep inpector for a long time, something in the order of 20 years I think.
My own Drenthe Heath Sheep through the yearsClick thumbnail to view full-size
They are Survivers
We stand for healthy sheep
One good thing in our Association is that our sheep don't get prizes, our inspections are solely focussed on breeding back and holding on to the healthy, self supporting animals they once were. The health of the sheep and the natural necessity of being a good mom to her offspring is essential. We don't breed with lambs in the same year they're born in (we like to give them time to grow into their adulthood), the sheep can only be put up for inspection at the age of 1,5 years old and we don't do concessions to a specific color if the rest is below level. We don't accept that animals with inheritable failures are being sold for breeding to other breeders. Breeders can get banned from the Association if they keep on not following the rules.
I became a Sheep InspectorClick thumbnail to view full-size
About the colors of Drenthen Heath Sheep
Colors often change while growing up
The Drenthe Heath Sheep are multicolored. This means that each ewe and each ram have all colors in their genes and it just depends which color genes from mom and dad will merge. Some colors are dominant (Fox color), others are not (Black and White). Furthermore there's a great varierity in some colors, especially in the Blue Fox and the Badgerface colors, they range from very pale to very dark.
The color name depicts only the color of the head along with the color of the legs, because except from the real black sheep, every other colored lamb will get a greyish white fleece when they're grown up. Colors are set at the first inspection at the age of 1,5 years old, because sometimes the color will change during the first year of their life.
Below I'll show you a few photos with an embedded small photo of how the adult ewe/ram looked when she/he was born and I'll show you photos with ewes with their offspring.
How colors can change from lamb to adult sheepClick thumbnail to view full-size
Black x Black isn't always Black with Multicolored SheepClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Drenthe Heath Sheep are not out of the danger zone yet
We still have a long way to go in preserving this old sheep breed
The Drenthe Heath Sheep is an intelligent sheep. They will find every weak spot in the fence, they can jump from standing position over a 1.20 meter high fence if they want to or are forced to. They have a strong herd instinct and a strong order of ranking and will always follow the leader.
They can be loud too, specially the ewes in winter season, when the pregnant ewes get their concentrate. They're insistent nagging ladies when they want something. I compare them often - as a joke - to women on a sales event, working with their ellbows, all wanting to be first, but I love them to pieces. I'm completely hooked to this ancient rare Dutch breed.
Officially we can't export them to other countries, due to some silly Government rules which we are unable to meet. The sheep are lacking a specific genotype, that's suppost to prevent them from getting a certain disease, while this disease has never ever been established in this breed. The breed apparently has some kind of natural resistance to some diseases that hit the manipulated, overly crossbred meat productive sheep breeds frequently. The Government however doesn't make exceptions.
A 100 year old Stuffed Head of a Drenthe Heath Sheep Ram
A Surprising Gift
In 2015 we got a telephone call from a man, telling us that he found this stuffed sheep head when cleaning out his parents house after they both had passed away, asking us if it was indeed a head of a rare Drenthe Heath Sheep Ram. The story behind it was that his parents got this stuffed head as a wedding present in 1923.
This was our lottery ticket, because now whe have a 'living' example of how the old type Drenthe Heath Sheep Rams really looked like in the old days and now we also know that we have still a long way to go, but the path is clear.
© 2013 Titia Geertman