The heath sheep breeds: our cultural heritage endangered

October 1, 2020

According to a study conducted by Centre for Genetic Resources, The Netherlands (CGN), heath sheep are considered endangered. This fact is not new, but this study has made it possible to compare the breeds and some of the features of the populations. In addition, their main threats were identified which will enable action plans to be drawn up.

Used to manage heathland, the heath sheep breeds contribute to maintain the Dutch landscape but they have also a role in maintaining biodiversity. These breeds are the Veluwe heath sheep, the Mergelland sheep, the Drenthe heath sheep, the Schoonebeek heath sheep, the Kempen heath sheep and the Large heath sheep.

The heath sheep breeds: fascinating breeds

For those who are not familiar with the heath sheep, they are unique and interesting sheep because they participate in managing landscape through heathland grazing. Because of this role on heathlands – these poor soil on large area – heath sheep are rustic. They are appreciated by their breeders because they are easy to maintain and are known for their quiet character. Do you know they include the oldest Dutch breed? The Drenthe heath sheep probably appeared 6,000 years ago, mainly in Drenthe and the surroundings, hence its name. It is part of the Dutch heritage. They were only fed with the feed found on heathlands, and the manure was used to fertilize arable land of the Drenthe. The Veluwe is also important in our cultural heritage: sheep are still conducted as they were initially, that means sheep are conducted every day on the heathlands by the sheepfold. To keep the specificities linked to heathland grazing, some breeding associations have decided to restrain the use of the sheep. Indeed, breeders who keep Kempen sheep on agricultural and fertile land cannot be member of the studbook, in order to keep only hardy animals, adapted to graze poor lands and maintain the heathlands.

New dangers threaten the heath sheep

Although these breeds reached an acceptable number of animals (the rarest breed is the Large heath sheep, with 1,000 breeding females registered in the flockbook), they are still endangered. Indeed, a rapid decrease can easily happen for instance with the outbreak of diseases . Such a decrease in the number of sheep could happen fast because these sheep are kept in few but large herds (usually between 100 and up to 500 sheep). Thus, the disappearance of only one flock can be a disaster for the breed. This is one example of the reasons of numerical scarcity, but it can be due to several factors. Therefore, CGN studied the differences in threats for the Dutch heath sheep breeds.

Breeders often keep these breeds because they are breed enthusiasts, but the costs are a limitation to keep the breed. Indeed, financial support by the government is cut or completely withdrawn, and on the other hand more and more regulations are introduced that make it difficult to keep these breeds. One of these regulations is the mandatory call for tenders to graze heathlands: the cheapest herd is selected. Thus, commercial grazing companies – that can operate at a lower cost – are expanding, at the expense of the local heath sheep breeds. This is a paradox: in the one hand, it is difficult for some herds to have the right to graze heathlands, but on the other hand, this is what make these breeds specific and keep them hardy. In addition, other regulations make it difficult to breed he heath sheep for meat production. In addition, the breeds have been selected for a long time for their ability to graze heathland and for their rusticity. Hence, they are not competitive with productive breeds for meat production. For this reason, meat cannot be commercialized through the standard channel. It is difficult to make a living from these sheep, especially because of the regulations on meat production are focused on commercial breeding. However, the valorisation of the products and the specificities of the sheep is an interesting way to make the breeds more attractive. Indeed, the quality of the meat of the Drenthe, linked to heathland grazing, is recognized by the Slowfood Foundation. The wool and the meat of the Kempen are also well known thanks to the brand Kempenlam and Kempenwool.            

A challenge for the rare breeds

These sheep are important for our cultural heritage and they have unique features that contribute to the genetic diversity. However, breeders and breeding associations are facing a dilemma. On the one hand, these animals keep their rusticity thanks to heathlands grazing, so it is important to keep the sheep on heathlands. On the other hand, this type of breeding is threatened by regulations so breeders have to find alternatives, and this could be at the expense of heathland grazing. In addition, these breeds are rare and only a few breeders keep them. Therefore, the breeds have to reinvent themselves to keep their specificities while attracting more breeders. So if you are willing to be a breeder, think about these local breeds and their advantages: easy to manage, they provide wool and meat, but most important, they carry our cultural heritage. But breeding the sheep is not the only solution to contribute to their preservation. You can donate, buy the products or contribute to make them known: some breeders organize event like lamb days, sales, etc.

Text: Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands - Eugenie Guennoc (student), Mira Schoon (researcher).