A Chat with a Shepherd

By far most of the sheep surrounding us are of the well-known Texel breed. Stocky, white-fleeced sheep, like the woolly lady enjoying a bit of wintry sunshine in the picture at the top of this post.

When I started spinning, decades ago, I only spun Texel wool at first. Simply because it was the only wool I could get at the time. Since then I’ve tried out various other sorts of sheep’s wool and non-sheep fibres. Even some nutria (also known as coypu rat). Ugh, never again! But let’s not get distracted – back to sheep.

We do have other sheep breeds in the Netherlands – 67 other breeds, in fact. (I didn’t know that. I looked it up.) One of these is the Drenthe Heath sheep. There are several flocks of Drenthe Heath in our part of the country, and we sometimes meet them when we’re out walking.

On one of our Sunday walks I already spotted them from a distance. How nice that they’re here today! (We never know exactly where they are – it’s always a surprise.) But when we came closer, something seemed different. Strange. Wrong.

Normally they roam freely over the heath, but this time they were all huddled together.

Huddled really, really closely together. Look:

That was decidedly odd! And where was the shepherd? We stood watching the sheep for a while, wondering what was up. Meanwhile I took some close-ups of individual sheep. Most of them are whitish with a brown or golden head and legs, but there are also some grey and black ones among them. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Then the sheep dog, a Border Collie, came back with the shepherd close on its heels.

We asked him (the shepherd, not the dog) what was the matter, and he told us that one of the sheep had broken a leg, jumping into a ditch. He’d had to carry it back to the fold and herded the rest of the flock closely together to keep them safe while he was away for a while.

He also told us that the flock consists of 380 sheep now. In spring, after lambing, it grows to 700-800. The sheep’s job is nature conservation. Their grazing keeps the heathland open, like this:

Every sheep eats about 5 kilograms of plant material a day. So, in winter the flock eats 380 x 5 = almost 2000 kilograms per day! Without the sheep, the area would soon be overgrown with shrubs:

The shrubs would be followed by trees. And the heath, with all its rare flora and fauna, would be gone within a decade. Thank you so much, dear sheep, for preserving this beautiful habitat for us.

Although these are the native sheep around here, I’ve never spun any of their wool. To be honest, I actually know very little about Drenthe Heath sheep or their wool. So when we got home I got out my Fleece & Fibre Source Book.

Yes! They’re in the index – go to page 313. And what does it say on page 313? The breed is mentioned under Zwartbles, as one of its ancestors, ‘the horned and hairy-fleeced Drenthe (outside the scope of this volume)’. Not very helpful.

Well, I’ll have to go looking for more information elsewhere. There’s always the internet, of course. Or I could visit some of the flocks and chat with other shepherds. I know that the Shepherds of Balloo have a wool studio, but I’ve never been there. A visit during the lambing season would be something to look forward to.

And maybe I could try spinning some Drenthe Heath wool. I don’t know what it’s like or if it would be suitable for knitting. Do any of you reading this have any experience with the wool? If you do, I would really appreciate it if you’d tell us about it in a comment.

To be continued…