The fascination of all things
miniature is bound to focus
attention on a rare breed of
pint-sized sheep from Europe.
Jeremy Hunt fell for their charms
THE Ouessant, the smallest breed of sheep in the world, has arrived in the UK and as animal importer James Graham takes a walk through his flock, the scene looks as though its come straight out of Gullivers Travels.
Barely knee-high, these black-fleeced sheep are totally unperturbed as Mr Graham wanders among them. And when he reaches down to pick up two ewes – one under each arm – they show no resistance.
"When they are born they look more like cuddly black Labrador puppies than lambs. You could easily just pop one in your pocket," says Mr Graham whose lifelong fascination with unusual animals sparked off his mission to locate this rare breed.
He first became aware of the Ouessant after seeing them mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as the worlds smallest sheep. The tiny ewes stand barely 17in at the shoulder and hail from the uninhabited island of Ouessant off the Brittany coast – an island described by Mr Graham as "little more than a seaweed-covered rock".
After much research, his quest to find them took him to Europe where he discovered a small band of enthusiasts in Holland, as well as others in France and Belgium.
* Groups of three
"Most Ouessant sheep are kept as pets in threes and fours rather than in breeding flocks. A few years ago the breed was on the verge of extinction with less than 300 sheep remaining but now numbers are beginning to improve."
He managed to buy one ram and two ewes to set up a nucleus flock but before he could import any into the UK he had to breed a generation that was both scrapie-free and had achieved maedi-visna accredited status to meet UK veterinary health regulations.
That meant leaving his sheep with a friend in Holland to give him time to build up numbers and to meet the importation rules.
But within two years Mr Graham was able to fly his first Ouessant into the UK and there is now a flock of around 30 on his farm near Blackburn, Lancs.
So how small is the worlds smallest sheep? Ewes, which are hornless, stand at around 17in at the shoulder with rams at 19in Mature weight is around 25lb. Most Ouessant have black wool although some white woolled ones do occur.
Mr Graham is no stranger to bringing animal rarities to the UK. After months of travel he recently imported one of the biggest shipments of alpaca to the UK – all personally selected from herds run on the high altitude Alta Plano in the Andes. Almost 400 have been imported over the last year including a string of impressive stud males of new Peruvian and Bolivian bloodlines.
While his Ouessant flock remains a hobby, he says he may consider selling a small number to enable new flocks to become established in the UK. "They are an intriguing breed that deserves wider recognition as amenity sheep. They are very hardy and extremely affectionate.
* Primitive breeds
"Other primitive breeds of small sheep are renowned for being flighty and not very people-friendly but the Ouessant is exactly the opposite. Its very tame and easy to handle."
The breeds origin remains a mystery. It was once suggested that the breed was derived from stock of Viking descent and had links with the Hebridean sheep from Scotland and the Skudde, which is a Nordic breed originating from the Baltic States.
Mr Graham says Ouessant lambs weigh around 2lb at birth but are vigorous and thrive on the attentiveness of their dams.
"The ewes are wonderful mothers. They only have single lambs and dote on their offspring. If commercial ewes were half as good as Ouessants life would be a lot easier for the UKs sheep farmers. They are a total dream to deal with and have exceptionally hard feet free of foot problems."
There are now around 1500 Ouessant sheep being kept in France, Belgium and Holland. Mr Graham, whos maintained a nucleus flock in Holland, hopes to import more in the future. There are now official breed societies in France and Holland.
"Rams of some of the other primitive breeds can be unpredictable but the Ouessant males are very quiet and easy to manage. Despite their size there is nothing puny about the Ouessant. The rams are very striking and remind me of a miniature version of the Bighorn sheep."
* Urban shepherds
So frustrated urban shepherds with a big lawn and nine-to-five day job may well feel like taking on a few Ouessants to chill-out with some weekend stock tasks.
But Mr Graham doesnt envisage there are going to be many spare sheep on the market for some time… but he admits he may have his arm twisted to part with a few.
Contact James Graham (01254-813919).