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Source: Husdyr i Norden. Vår arv - vårt ansvar (Farm Animals in the Nordic Countries. Our Inheritance - our Responsibility). Årbok for Norsk Landbrugsmuseum, Jord og gjerning 1992/93. 144 p. (eds. B.Gjelstad, N.Kolstad & K.Majala)  Landbrukforlaget Oslo 1993.  English translation by Kalle Majala.

Coming of sheep and their breeding to the Nordic countries

1. Adalsteinsson, S., 1993. Husdyrene i menneskenes tjeneste i Norden (Farm animals in service of humans in the Nordic Countries), pp. 8-23.

The first bone remains from domestic sheep have been found from a cultural layer in the southern coast of the Caspian Sea from about 9 000 BC. The first certain proof of that a mutation of tame sheep has been chosen for breeding is the occurrence of polled sheep in Soutwest-Iran ca. 7 500 BC. The first tame sheep is supposed to originate from the Urial sheep of Southwest Asia. The Arial sheep of the West-Asia has possibly contributed to the creation of Asian sheep breeds, and the Mufflon sheep, occurring from Southwest Asia to Southeasteern Europe, has influenced European breeds.

In Norway, other domestic animals than dogs have been found to occur at the later Iron Age (2500-1500 BC). To Sweden, animal husbandry (cattle, sheep, goat, pig) is assumed to have arrived 3000-4000 BC. In the Bronze Age (ca. 1700 BC), one learned in Sweden to spin, weave and convert wool to items of clothing. The climate in Sweden at that time is assumed to have been comparable to the present-day French climate. The animals found feed from outdoors throughout the year, and preservation of winter feed was unnecessary.

In spite of favourable climate, one started in Norway already at the Bronze Age to keep animals inside at nights. One has studied in Norway houses originating from the middle of Bronze Age, ca. 1000 BC, in Rogaland. The houses were big, and the people lived in one end of them, and animals were kept in the other end. The animals were kept inside for protecting them from wild beasts. As late as in the 1740's it was stressed, that mountain pastures could not be used in South Norway because of bears and wolves.

The main production from farm animals took place in the summer. A.o. sheep brought values from the summer pasture to home in the form of body reserves.

When the climate of Iceland became harder some centuries after the arrival of people, the number of sheep increased at the expense of cows. Sheep were not as demanding, it was easier to keep them in life in hard years, and to increase their numbers thereafter. From the Middle Age to the 20th century, wool was an important raw material in clothing. It was sheared from the sheep in the spring. Wool articles were very important commodities in Iceland in all times. In the Middle Age they were the most important export articles of Iceland. The sheep skins were used for leather cloths of sailors and for shoes of children.

Sheep husbandry had a big importance in the Faeroes in the former times. There was a special law about management of sheep husbandry, telling, what rights the sheep owners had and how sheep should be transferred from mountain pastures to cultivated field pastures in certain seasons of the year. Sheep were kept for wool, meat and skin. The meat was dried, giving a strong taste to it, because of the decomposition of protein. This taste was appreciated by people accustomed to it since childhood, but humans who got it only as adult had more difficulties to accept it. The manure of sheep was used as fuel.

2. Gjelstad, B., 1993. Nordens husdyr: En presentasjon (Presentation of Nordic animal breeds), pp. 33-79.

The Nordic landraces belong to the horned and short-necked sheep breeds, which occurred in North-Europe in earlier times. In the northern countries they predominated in North-Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Compared to other breeds existing in the Nordic countries, the landrace animals were small and short with slender legs. The croupe is short, but broad and sloping, and the births are usually easy. In the original landrace, horns were common, but polled animals were favoured in sheep husbandry. They could not so easily wound each other and be tied to bushes. The landraces are prolific, and they have good mothering abilities, but they have generally less developed muscles than improved breeds. The wool coat consists of a mixture of fine bottom wool and long, rather coarse cover wool.

The Danish landrace and heath sheep is descended from the heath sheep of Jutland, which constituted an essential part of the sheep stock of Jutland before 1850 AD. Typical for the animals was modesty. They were small animals, ca. 50 kg. There were two different types, of which one had fine, the other coarse wool. The animals were well adapted to move in an uneven terrain and produced plenty of milk in spite of that. The original types are assumed to have disappeared after Merino-crossing in the 1800's and Leicester and Oxforddown-crossing in the 1900's. One attempts to rebuild the breed.

The Finnish Landrace differs from the other Nordic landraces with regard to its special wool quality. In its breeding work one has succeeded to create a fine-woolled type, in which the wool coat is almost free from cover hairs. In the wool processing one has differentiated three types: household, fur and textile wool, of which the last one is the finest. It has also been succeeded to increase the prolificacy, so that twins and triplets are common. Even four and five lambs are not rare. The good prolificacy has made the breed known, and it has been imported to ca. 40 countries for breeding and experiments.

The Faeroese sheep. There are stories according to which there have been sheep in Faeroes long before the northern isle was inhabited ca. 1200 years ago. The fact that the rams on the isles were horned and ewes polled suggests that the sheep originate from Shetland, Orkney isles and Scotland. The old society of Faeroes was to great extent based on self-sufficiency. Compared to Iceland, sheep husbandry had greater importance. The foreign export consisted almost exclusively of wool and woollen goods.

Greenland received its sheep breed from Iceland in the 1900's.

In Iceland one has, differing from other countries, not given weight to standardization of breeds, but on the contrary to preservation of varieties. There are polled and horned sheep, and also 4-horned animals. Also the colour of wool varies greatly, and colour has recently has received great interest. This concerns especially gray colour in fur production and chocolate brown (moorit) colour in handicraft industry. In the breeding work one has emphasized more meat than wool production, which consists of long, coarse cover wool and of fine, soft bottom wool. According to studies, the Icelandic sheep are more closely related to the Norwegian Spael sheep than to the sheep of Shetland and Orkney isles. The animals are a little bigger and more muscular than the Norwegian Spael sheep. The breed is fertile. A fertility gene, Thoka gene, has been found recently. The carriers of this gene have given, on an average, 0.7 lambs/litter more than those without it. There are also individuals, which have a special leader gene. This special characteristics has been known and greatly appreciated since older times. The trait has continuously a great value for a sheep owner, who can utilize the traits of a leader sheep. Recently, the number of leader sheep has decreased. Of the pure breeding of sheep with leader characteristics, a law has been enacted, to be followed in the trade of semen of rams of leader stocks.

The Norwegian Landrace (spael-sheep) was near of extinction in the latter part of 1800's, because of imports of and crossing with British breeds. In order to prevent the extinction, two breeding stations were established in 1912 on the basis of some pure flocks. One of these belonged to an old stock variety living outdoors. From these stations, many breeding animals were sold, and the breed spred again to many parts of the country. In the last decades of 1900's the breed has greatly inreased in numbers, mainly due to its good fertility and mothering traits. The most common colour is white. Other colours are black, brown and grayblue.

Remains of the Norwegian outdoor sheep (wild sheep) live continuously on the isles of Norwegian west coast. They are used in a form of husbandry, resembling tame reindeer husbandry, where sheep are taken indoors twice a year for shearing and sorted out for slaughter. Otherwise they manage without care. They are shy and react like wild animals. They are smaller and more stylish than the tame Spael sheep. Most of the rams have horns. Earlier also every second ewe had small horns, but horned ewes were slaughtered. There are many colour varieties, some animals have Mouflon colour. The wool, which is a mixture of fine, soft bottom wool and coarser cover wool, varies greatly for its composition and quality between individuals. The body weight and muscularity are smaller than in the tame sheep. Now there is great interest in getting more information of the wild sheep and in securing that it does not disappear.

The Norwegian Fur Sheep is a cross between Swedish Fur sheep and gray Spael sheep. It originated from crossing with Swedish rams at the beginning of 1960's, and the Swedish model has been followed in its selection. It is spred mostly in Vestland, North-Östland and South-Tröndelag. It is prolific and a good mother sheep. It has a longer body and higher legs than Spael-sheep. In slaughter it is considered to have better developed muscles, especially on back. It is active and can wander around the pasture more than desired.

To the Swedish White Landrace belongs three types: Rya, Fine Wool, and Norwegian Spael sheep, of which the last one is rare. The types are divided according to wool quality. The wool is generally white, but other colours occur, too. The Rya sheep resembles most the original landrace. In its wool there are long, strong and lustruous cover hairs, suited especially to handicraft products, rugs and finer carpets. Earlier one has imported rams from Norway for breeding Rya type. The Fine Wool sheep originates from Finland. Its wool is of similar type as that of Finnsheep, and it has a good prolificacy. The Gute Sheep is an old outdoor sheep from Gotland. The breed has coarse wool with many colour varieties. Both sexes have still some primitive traits like horns and very restricted estrus period. The breed is modest, but poorly prolific. It is kept mostly as a pasture animal on weak pasture areas.

Swedish Fur Sheep (Gotlandic Outdoor Sheep) originates from Gute Sheep and from Leicester and Rya sheep. Its fur is gray, a mixture of black and white hairs. The Fur sheep have bigger size, higher legs and faster growth than the landrace on the continent. It has a good prolificacy. The wool is lustruous and curly. The fur quality is at its best when the lambs are 4-5 months old and ripe for slaughter. The fur articles are sold under the name "Viking-lamb". The breed is popular and is exported to the neighbouring countries, to some extent also to The Netherlands and Great-Britain.

Other sheep breeds kept long in the Nordic Countries belong to the meat breeds, and their wool is medium fine.

Cheviot originates from England and from the Cheviot mountains at the border of Scotland. It was imported to Sweden the first time in 1836, and in the latter part of 1800's considerable numbers of it were imported to the Nordic countries. The wool is white and whe wool cover dense. It is still kept pure in Denmark and Norway, but the numbers have declined in recent years.

Dala-sheep originates from Vestland of Norway. It was developed from crossing Norwegian Landrace with Leicester and Sutherland breeds. It was presented in an exhibition in Norway first time in 1919. It is the biggest of Norwegian breeds. The growth and carcass quality are good. Adult ewes can weigh 90 kg. It is polled, wool is white and of good quality. It is the most common breed in Norway.

Experiments on the value of German Blackhead crosses for mutton and wool production, and of Karakul crosses for pelt production were performed in Finland in the 1930-40's.

Leicester was created in England in the middle of 1700's and brought to the Nordic countries in the 1860's. In Denmark it has been bred pure and is considered a Danish breed. In Norway it had a great importance in the creation of Dala breed and in Sweden in the development of Fur Sheep. In these countries the carcass quality has been improved with the aid of it.

Lincoln was tried in Finland in the 1950's for meat production, because of its big adult size, but its growth rate and muscularity proved not to be good.

Oxforddown originates from the Oxford county in England and arrived at Scandinavia in the 1860's. It is polled and white-woolled. The wool yield is big and of good quality. Adult ewes weigh 70-90 kg and rams 120-150 kg. The breed was thought to suit to better cultivation conditions and to meat crosses. In Denmark it has been bred as pure and is considered a Danish breed. In Finland, it composed ca. 3% of recorded ewes in 2000. In Norway and Sweden it has had less importance.

Rygja-sheep originates from Rogaland in southwest Norway. Its breeding work was initiated in 1907. It has been affected by some exported breeds like Merino, Leicester, Sutherland and Cheviot. It was named in 1924. It is smaller, more slender and has shorter legs than Dala. It is polled and has black nose and hooves. Its wool is soft and almost free from marrow hairs. In 1958-59 a total of 250 Rygja sheep were imported to Finland from Norway for experimentation. The breed has larger size, better growth rate and muscularity than Finnsheep, being thus better suited for mutton production. It also gives a better wool yield and has a calmer temperament, but the litter size is nearly one lamb lower, and difficult parturitions are more frequent.

Shropshire is a landrace from Shropshire in England, but it has been developed by crossing with Southdown. It is of medium size (60 kg) and well-muscled. It is the most common breed in Denmark, but it does not have an important influence on other Nordic breeds.

Steigar-sheep has got its name from Steigen in Nordland. It is based on North-Norwegian landrace, which was crossed first with Leicester and later with Cheviot and Sutherland rams. The last one has left the clearest effect on it. It is polled, with black nose and hooves. Its wool is white and of similar quality than that of Rygja. The breed is productive and popular.

Texel originates from the Texel isles of the Netherlands. It was originally an undemanding landrace, which was adapted to the nutrient-poor sand dunes of the coast of the North Sea. In the middle of 1800's it was crossed with English breeds, a.o. Lincoln and Leicester. With the aid of selective breeding it has become a prolific and effective producer of meat and wool. The animals are big (70 kg) and have long and muscular bodies. It is the newest breed imported to the Nordic countries. In Denmark it is the most common breed and in Finland the second.

In 1988, the two most common breeds in Danish sheep recording were Texel and Shropshire, in the Swedish one Fur sheep and White Landrace, in the Finnish one Finnsheep and Texel, and in the Norwegian one Dala and Spael-sheep.

Published Results

Created by ThEP and EE Edited by Emma Eythorsdottir for the North SheD group.
Agricultural Research Institute of Iceland.