Origin & History
Often referred to as the “cutest sheep in the world” these exceptional looking sheep with their curly forelocks, black face and ears, spotted knees and hocks originate in the mountains of the Valais French (French) or Wallis (German) area of Switzerland. The Valais is divided into 2 halves – the French-speaking lower part and the upper part where Valais German (a Swiss German dialect) is spoken. It is here in the upper part that this breed originates. The canton of Valais is one of 26 cantons of Switzerland situated in the southwestern part of the country in the valley of the Rhone from its headwaters to Lake Geneva separating the Pennine Alps from the Bernese Alps. The canton is simultaneously one of the driest regions of Switzerland in its central Rhône valley and among the wettest, having large amounts of snow and rain upon the highest peaks found in Switzerland, boasting 50 peaks higher than 4000m.
In addition to their attractive appearance, they have what others have described as “utterly charming” personalities. Unlike most mountain breeds which have a well – developed “fight or flight” response, there are many accounts of hikers in the mountains having engaging encounters with them and they talk of finding it difficult to take their photo as they want to be next to whoever’s around! Meet a Valais it is said, and you have a friend for life!
In the book, “Das Walliser Schwarznasenschaf”, it is mentioned that sheep (with horns) were already common in the region of Valais 5000 years BC. The Valais Blacknose probably derives from a cross between black sheep and the “Coppersheep” which is mentioned in the historical documents from the 15th century in Switzerland.
In the 19th century, the “black-nosed sheep” from the valley of Visp in Valais was mentioned for the first time. The Valais was a very poor region and the sheep were an important source of food, clothing and money for the farmers, most of whom were farmers on the steep slopes of Valais. So the Valais Blacknose were valued and loved by the Valais people – and still are.
Twice in history, the breed almost died out. First, there were epidemic spreads of tuberculosis in 1930 and 1940, which affected the people and sheep alike in Valais. Then a breeding program from the Swiss authorities in the 1960s tried to convince the Valais breeders to cross the Valais Blacknose with more meat-yielding breeds. The tradition – conscious breeders refused and the experiments were given up. In 1948, the first Upper Valais Sheep Breeders Association was founded but only in 1962 did the breed become a registered breed and was included in the Swiss Sheep Breeders Association in 1964. There are around 12,000 registered in their native country.
In the “Matterhorn Blog”, Paul Julen, an Upper Valais Blacknose sheep farmer from Zermatt, explains that he starts bringing his flock down from the mountains in October in preparation for winter. They have spent 6 months on the surrounding Alps and some find their way back from the pasture to the farm by themselves. “Blacknose sheep have a memory for places and a sense of time far better than people,” he says.
He enjoys creating specialties in is the family restaurant of 15 different variations on their meat which has a fat content 50% lower than other breeds and is known for being tasty even to those not partial to lamb (probably due to the different variety of mountain herbs they feed on).
Export of Valais Blacknose from Switzerland was possible for only a short period in 2014 before the borders closed. A number of UK breeders took the opportunity to bring animals across to set up national flocks. There are now around 500 sheep in the UK and their popularity continues to grow. The quality of those animals varied significantly with some exceptional Swiss bloodlines being established but also some poor examples of the breed. That difference in quality can still be seen today in the UK and unfortunately is also being imported to NZ. It is very worthwhile following (or even visiting!) the National “Black beauties” Valais Blacknose show in Carlisle, England held every August to see what top breeders are presenting.
The Swiss border is now closed to exports as part of the national scrapie management plan.
The breed has come a long way since its beginnings as you can see from the photo below taken 50 years ago in Switzerland and more recently at the National Blacknose Beauties show in Carlisle 2018.
Valais Blacknose are quiet docile animals that are friendly and inquisitive. In Switzerland, they are a hardy mountain breed, grazing the steepest stoniest slopes of the Alps but as the breed spreads across the world it is proving to be very adaptable to a wide variety of environments.
They are known for easy lambing, with long legged light lambs that rapidly grow. They can lamb year around. In Switzerland they have dual use, both for meat and producing coarse carpet grade wool. The fibre has an average micron of 38 in mature sheep and lambs are around 28 – 30 micron. The wool also has a long staple (growing around 30cm annually) making it historically favoured for spinning by the Valais farming women. Shearing takes place twice a year in most places. The fleece has a white and fluffy look adding to the “cuddly toy” appeal.
Their characteristic appearance involves black parts of the nose, eyes, ears, front knees, ankles, hocks and feet in an otherwise white coat. Ewes also have black under-tail spots which make for easy sexing at birth! Both sexes have spiral-shaped twisted horns, the males tending to be heavier and spiralling downward while the ewe horns are lighter and generally point outwards. Adding to their striking appearance is the fact that they command a presence in their size. Rams can range from 80 – 130kg with a height of 75 -83cm and ewes range from 70 – 90kg and 72 – 78 cm in height.
The Swiss have very high breed standards and classify their animals every year. The Oberwalliser Schwarznasen Schafzuchtverband (Upper Valais Breeding Association) have established a grading system based on age to compare individual sheep against a standard for a perfect sheep. The perfect sheep according to these standards is awarded maximum points. Points are awarded in 3 categories – 1. Markings; 2. Conformation and 3. Fleece, so the sheep receives three scores. An animal 12 months and younger has maximum scores of 4,4,4; one of 12 months to 18 months scores 5,5,5 and older sheep are 6,6,6. The most important scores are the conformation and fleece while markings carry less weight.
Like any sheep, the basic requirements include strong upright legs, well developed hindquarters, a good shoulder and backline. And with the Valais, there is the additional strive for well-marked faces, knees, hocks and feet with wool with even fleece and 36-40 microns in adults. The Swiss have spent many generations improving the conformation and fleece of the Valais Blacknose. Only the very best receive maximum points, approximately 5% of all Valais Blacknose sheep.
Ewes: 70 – 90kg and 72 – 78 cm in height
Rams: 80 – 130kg with a height of 75 -83cm
Coarse carpet grade wool.
The fibre has an average micron of 38 in mature sheep and lambs are around 28 – 30 micron.
The wool also has a long staple (growing around 30cm annually) making it historically favoured for spinning by the Valais farming women.
Shearing takes place twice a year in most places.
The fleece has a white and fluffy look adding to the “cuddly toy” appeal.
Has a fat content 50% lower than other breeds and is nown for being tasty even to those not partial to lamb (probably due to the different variety of mountain herbs they feed on).
They are known for easy lambing, with long legged light lambs that rapidly grow. They can lamb year around.
2018 NZSBA Flock book figures: Seven flocks listed; founded on imported embryos.
Breed Classes and Shows
Every February the Swiss have their own Valais Blacknose “beauty contest” in Visp called “Miss VISP”. Wearing their traditional copper bells, they are presented to admirers in a large school hall. The UK flock has had its own show annually since 2016 in Carlisle, England. Qualified Swiss judges (up to 10 initially!) have been invited to the Carlisle show annually where they grade the animals according to the Swiss system and “maximum points”. Sheep are washed and groomed in a similar style to preparation for the Swiss shows.