Dutch Native Sheep Breed: Drenthe Heath Sheep (Drents Heideschaap)

Updated on October 5, 2019
Titia profile image

I have been raising sheep for over 30 years. The oldest Dutch native sheep breed is called Drenthe Heath Sheep.

Drenthe Heath Sheep - Drents Heideschaap
Drenthe Heath Sheep - Drents Heideschaap | Source

The Oldest Native Sheep Breed of the Netherlands Is the Drenthe Heath Sheep

The Netherlands has 5 different native Heath Sheep breeds of which the Drenthe Heath Sheep is the oldest. These sheep were roaming our country as far back as the 14th century.

It's the only native horned breed in my country, rams have rather big horns and ewes can be horned, hornless or have sticks. This sheep breed can survive harsh winters, is multi-colored, self-supporting, and is the most beautiful sheep breed I know. They're still very close to nature and hardly lost their natural instinct. I've been raising these sheep for over 30 years now.

The 5 Native Heath Sheep Breeds of the Netherlands
The 5 Native Heath Sheep Breeds of the Netherlands | Source

These Sheep Are Kept in Big Herds or in Small Flocks.

Big herd of Drenthe Heath Sheep
Big herd of Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source
Little flock of Drenthe Heath Sheep
Little flock of Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source

Short History of This Beautiful, Old Sheep Breed

Sheep are one of the oldest domesticated farm animals. The Drenthe Heath Sheep is the oldest breed of mainland Western Europe. Sheep with great similarities were found in the Dutch province Drenthe as far back as about 4000 BC and probably came along with French immigrants. This breed is, therefore, the last remnant of the way sheep were kept as far back as 6000 years.

In the old days, the Netherlands was covered with big heath fields of which you can still find larger and smaller areas scattered throughout the country. Contrary to the more improved breeds, these sheep are capable of surviving on the arid heath fields.

In the last centuries these Drenthe Heath Sheep have contributed in a large way to the improvement of Agricultural grounds.

Dutch heather fields with Drenthe Heath Sheep flock
Dutch heather fields with Drenthe Heath Sheep flock | Source

This Breed Is Named After the Province Drenthe

The Drenthe Heath Sheep were named after the Province of Drenthe in the Netherlands, because it was there that they were found most in the old days. Drenthe is the province that still harbors the largest heath fields today.

Selection occurred mostly in a natural way. The most hardened sheep survived, just like it happens with animals living in the wild. Ewes that rejected their lamb got slaughtered for food. Those sheep needed to have endurance because they had to roam the heath fields for hours and hours to get their bellies filled.

Farmers Used Sheep Poop to Fertilize the Land

Old Postcard of a big Drenthe Heath Sheep Herd
Old Postcard of a big Drenthe Heath Sheep Herd | Source

Sheep Poop Mixed with Heather Makes a Good Fertilizer

The farmers in Drenthe were poor people and the soil in the Province of Drenthe wasn't the best soil to grow crops in, so they had to fertilize it a lot and they used the sheep to do that. Artificial fertilizer hadn't been invented yet.

During the day the sheep of different owners were joined together and the shepherd and his dog wandered off all day across the heather fields so the sheep could eat their belly full. At night they were brought back to their rightful owners and put into the sheepfold, in which they had spread cut peat. The sheep would poop on the cut peat which was layered over and over. Those sheepfolds were deep litter houses. At the end of winter, they got the manure out and it was spread over the land. When it wasn't too cold and freezing, the sheep slept outside on the land.

Each farmer had a smaller or bigger herd of sheep.

Old Postcard of Drenthe Heath Sheep herd in Exloo the Netherlands
Old Postcard of Drenthe Heath Sheep herd in Exloo the Netherlands | Source
Old Postcard of Schoonebeeker Sheep herd
Old Postcard of Schoonebeeker Sheep herd | Source

Artificial Fertilizer Was the Malefactor for This Breed's Existance

After the invention of the artificial fertilizer in 1903, the Drenthe Heath Sheep lost their economic value. They were not the number one fertilizer "machines" anymore. As this breed is rather small and slim and was not developed for producing a big load of meat the farmers were looking for another way to make more money out of their sheep.

In the South of the Province Drenthe where the soil was quite a bit richer and more nourishing, they kept another sheep breed, called the Schoonebeeker . Farmers started to cross-bred their Drenthe sheep with those Schoonebeekers in order to get more meat which they could sell at a higher price.

What happened was the development of a new type of sheep, which was heavier-built, which gave more meat on the lambs, but cross breeding is never a good thing for the original breeds. Slowly but steadily, the old type of Drenthe Heath Sheep and Schoonebeeker were disappearing almost to the point of extinction.

The Near Extinction of Two Beautiful Breeds due to crossbreeding
The Near Extinction of Two Beautiful Breeds due to crossbreeding | Source

How an Association Rescued the Breed From Extinction

In 1977 a newly founded organization called Association for Original Dutch Livestock Breeds, made a country-wide inventory of what was left of the original native Dutch livestock breeds, including the sheep. The outcome startled them, because the Drenthe Heath Sheep as well as the Schoonebeeker had almost vanished beyond repair so to speak.

It took, however, another decade before the Dutch Breeder Association the Drenthe Heath Sheep was founded in 1985 and I was in it from the start. At first, it was an association only for the horned sheep, but within a short time, we were able to also take the Schoonebeeker under our protection, because it was a breed originated in the Province Drenthe too.

A breed standard was made up from what we read/heard/saw of how the original breed must have looked like. Photographs were not available, only a few drawings, so we had to go with books (one antique book actually) and hearsay from very old shepherds. We started slowly with a wide breeding base. There weren't very many sheep of the old type left and we had to be careful with a too close inbreeding because that would have made things even worse. Each year a selection was made to rule out the bad ones and keep the good ones (or as good as they got at that time) for breeding and we have been doing this for the last 30 years.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Horned Drenthe Heath Sheep eweHornless Denthe Heath Sheep eweOld type of Drenthe Heath Sheep ramGroup of Drenthe Heath Sheep rams just sheared.
Horned Drenthe Heath Sheep ewe
Horned Drenthe Heath Sheep ewe | Source
Hornless Denthe Heath Sheep ewe
Hornless Denthe Heath Sheep ewe | Source
Old type of Drenthe Heath Sheep ram
Old type of Drenthe Heath Sheep ram | Source
Group of Drenthe Heath Sheep rams just sheared.
Group of Drenthe Heath Sheep rams just sheared. | Source

We Stand for Healthy and Functional Sheep

I've been breeding these sheep for 30 years now, have served 9 years on the board, I keep the International acknowledged pedigree book since 2000.

One good thing about our association is that our sheep don't get prizes, our inspections are solely focused on breeding back and holding on to the healthy, self-supporting animals they once were. The health of the sheep and the natural necessity of being a good mom to her offspring are essential. We don't breed with lambs in the same year they're born in (we like to give them time to grow into their adulthood), the sheep can only be put up for inspection at the minimum age of 1 years old, and we don't do concessions to a specific color if the rest is below level. We don't accept that animals with inheritable failures are being sold for breeding to other breeders. Breeders can get banned from the association if they keep on breaking the rules.

Drenthe Heath Sheep Can Survive the Dutch Winters

Drenthe Heath Sheep in Winter
Drenthe Heath Sheep in Winter | Source

I Started My Own Flock of Sheep in 1984

In 1984 I came across this native Dutch sheep breed and immediately fell in love with their beautiful appearance, their intelligence and the fact that I could help to preserve these sheep for the next generations. I started with two ewes and one of them got twin lambs. However it didn't take too long before they grew into a small flock.

My first two Drenthe Heath Sheep ewes with lambs
My first two Drenthe Heath Sheep ewes with lambs | Source
Small flock of Drenthe Heath Sheep
Small flock of Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source

I Became a Sheep Inspector

February: temp was -7C (19.4F), July temp was about 32C (89.6F)
February: temp was -7C (19.4F), July temp was about 32C (89.6F) | Source

Drenthe Heath Sheep Are Multicolored

Drenthe Sheep Are a Multicolored Breed
Drenthe Sheep Are a Multicolored Breed | Source

The Original Colors Sometimes Change With Age

The Drenthe Heath Sheep are multicolored. This means that each ewe and each ram have all colors in their genes and what colors will merge into the offspring is always a surprise. Some colors are dominant (fox color), others are not (black and white). Furthermore, there's a great variety in some colors, especially in the blue fox and the badger face colors; they range from very pale to very dark.

The color name depicts only the color of the head along with the color of the legs. Except for the real black sheep, every other colored lamb will get a grayish white fleece when they're grown up. Colors are set at the first inspection at the age of 1, and 5 years of age because sometimes the color will change during the first year of their life.

Below, I'll show you a few photos with an embedded small photo of how the adult ewe/ram looked when she/he was born. I'll also show you photos of ewes with their offspring.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
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Black x Black Cross Isn't Always Black With Multicolored Sheep

You can't breed on color with this particular Heath Sheep breed. Every ewe and ram have all colors in their genes so you can never predict the colors of the lambs.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Multicolored Drenthe Heath SheepMulticolored Drenthe Heath SheepMulticolored Drenthe Heath SheepMulticolored Drenthe Heath SheepMulticolored Drenthe Heath Sheep
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep
Multicolored Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source

This Old Sheep Breed Is Still at Risk

The Drenthe Heath Sheep is an intelligent sheep. They will find every weak spot in the fence, they can jump from standing position over a 1.20 meter (47") high fence if they want to or are forced to. They have a strong herd instinct and a strong order of ranking and will always follow the leader.

They can be loud too, especially the ewes in the winter season, when the pregnant ewes get their concentrate. They're insistent nagging ladies when they want something. I compare them often—as a joke—to women on a sales event, working with their elbows, all wanting to be first, but I love them to pieces. I'm completely hooked on this ancient, rare Dutch breed.

Officially, we can't export them to other countries due to some silly government rules which we are unable to meet. The sheep are lacking a specific genotype that prevents them from getting a certain disease, even though this disease has never ever been established in this breed. The breed apparently has some kind of natural resistance to some diseases that hit the manipulated, overly crossbred meat productive sheep breeds frequently. The government, however, doesn't make exceptions.

Black Drenthe Heath Sheep ram
Black Drenthe Heath Sheep ram | Source

A Surprising Gift

In 2015, we got a telephone call from a man telling us that he found this stuffed sheep head when cleaning out his parent's house after they both had passed away, asking us if it was a head of a rare Drenthe Heath Sheep ram. The story behind it was that his parents got this stuffed head as a wedding present in 1923.

This was our lottery ticket, because now we have a "living" example of how the old type Drenthe Heath Sheep rams really looked like in the old days. We also now know that we still have a long way to go, but the path is clear.

Today (2017) we have about 22 big herds of Drenthe Heath Sheep and Schoonebeeker Sheep and about 150 small(er) breeders within our association.

A 100 year old stuffed head of a Drenthe Heath Sheep Ram
A 100 year old stuffed head of a Drenthe Heath Sheep Ram | Source

Using the Drenthe Sheep Fleece

The fleece of these Drenthe Heath Sheep is very popular with all people who are spinning or making felted objects due to the very long locks they produce.

However knitted sweaters or vests tend to be rather itchy on the bare skin, but are very wearable when you wear a long sleeve rollneck T-shirt under it.


Knitted Sheep Wool
Knitted Sheep Wool

Today these fleeces are mainly used to make beautiful floor rugs or chair covers by putting a felted layer on the cutting side of the whole fleece. Looks exactly like a prepared sheep skin, but in this case the sheep don't have to die first.

White Fleece
White Fleece
Grey Fleece
Grey Fleece

Interested in My Sheep Fleeces?

If you're interested in the fleeces of this ancient sheep breed, you can send me an email through the 'contact author' button on top of this page.

© 2013 Titia Geertman

Love to Read Your Comments on My Rare Sheep Breed

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    • profile image

      Jo Chesmore 

      2 months ago

      Hi I love your sheep and the history behind them. I’ve worked with a few uk rare breeds, but not anymore. However, I make fleece rugs, hoping it promotes both wool and breeds.

      I would be very interested in your fleeces, if possible.

      Many thanks

      Jo

    • Titia profile imageAUTHOR

      Titia Geertman 

      17 months ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      Hello Alice Logan Cooper, if you go to my profile page you can contact me by hitting the contact button below my name.

    • profile image

      Alice Logan Cooper 

      18 months ago

      As a knitter and weaver, love the info on the Netherlands sheep breeds.

      Just returned from the Netherlands and took several photos of the sheep

      in the fields. I wonder if there's any written info to obtain on the breeds.

      Alice C., S.E. PA, USA

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      4 years ago from California Gold Country

      Very interesting article about your sheep. I wandered over to your page after following the sheep-naming thread. Their expressions make them look very intellegent.

    • kimberlyschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 

      5 years ago from Greensboro, NC

      As a knitter, I'd like to have some sheep and angora rabbits some day. My favorite sheep are Jacobs--with those extra horns, they look like something out of the Revelation!

    • goldenrulecomics profile image

      goldenrulecomics 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Very nicely done. I learned a lot. Thanks!

    • kmhrsn profile image

      kmhrsn 

      6 years ago

      What an interesting article! The photos are beautiful, full of great information too. I watched the drum carding video, and it was even more interesting than I thought it would be.

    • inkymama profile image

      inkymama 

      6 years ago

      Nice lens, thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      kimadagem 

      6 years ago

      Lovely reading about this rare breed, I'm glad you shared it. I can understand the reason for restricting export of the sheep; I think the breed would change if it were raised somewhere else, just because of the different climate and food. But still - I wouldn't mind trying to spin some of that beautiful fleece, especially if it doesn't felt.

    • tigerbait profile image

      tigerbait 

      6 years ago

      Great Lens! very informative

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      nice lens

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 

      6 years ago

      Excellent presentation of this valuable subject.

    • greenmind profile image

      GreenMind Guides 

      6 years ago from USA

      Hey great lens. Who knew? Glad you saved these sheep.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Keeping sheep seems like pretty hard work although I wouldn't mind having a farm with them

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      6 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I'm very thankful for people who dedicate themselves to conserving and restoring rare breeds of animals. So many farms have gone to giant scale mono-cultures of livestock, allowing much of the wonderful diversity and strength of traditional and rare breeds of animals to die out. Thank you for preserving this useful, beautiful, and sturdy breed of Drenthen Moor Sheep!

    • LizMac60 profile image

      Liz Mackay 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      I love your sheep lenses. I live in Devon, England, in the countryside, so I've seen sheep all my life, but not been as hands on as you are. I do remember going around a flock with the farmer's daughter to check if any sheep were on their backs. I rolled one over myself.

    • Tay Henry profile image

      Tay Henry 

      6 years ago

      great photos

    • VineetBhandari profile image

      VineetBhandari 

      6 years ago

      Great information & beautiful pics

    • poldepc lm profile image

      poldepc lm 

      6 years ago

      Very informative lens

    • tabster2 profile image

      tabster2 

      6 years ago

      I love the photos where you can see the sheep blending into the landscape, they're the same color range.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 

      6 years ago

      Great images

    • Grasmere Sue profile image

      Sue Dixon 

      6 years ago from Grasmere, Cumbria, UK

      We've got sheep everywhere here. Our local breed is the herdwick. Hope it's not too cold for your lambing right now.

    • profile image

      pinoyrecipe 

      6 years ago

      love those pictures, hope i could see an actual shearing of a sheep

    • Titia profile imageAUTHOR

      Titia Geertman 

      6 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      @SandraWilson LM: The fleece of this breed is very long. It used to be used for making carpets. It has a thicker hair in it which we call 'kemp', looks a bit like a horse tail hair. It's very easy to spin, but that kemp might cause a bit of irritation when worn on your bare skin. This wool is mostly used for making felt.

    • moneyrat profile image

      moneyrat 

      6 years ago

      They look like a tough breed. A great lens !

    • BobZau profile image

      Bob Zau 

      6 years ago

      What a wonderful lens. I'll have to visit your other sheep lenses.

    • SandraWilson LM profile image

      SandraWilson LM 

      6 years ago

      You are a spinner, so what is the fleece like from this breed?

    • GeekGirl1 profile image

      GeekGirl1 

      6 years ago

      the Drenther Moor sheep looks cool.

    • kindoak profile image

      kindoak 

      6 years ago

      Another one of your fantastic lenses. Keeping sheep seems like pretty hard work although I wouldn't mind having a farm with them. I like sheep, and their environmental impact is so much lower than cattle.

    • iamraincrystal profile image

      Rosyel Sawali 

      6 years ago from Manila Philippines

      Awesome lens! I just learned more about sheep. ^_^

    • Titia profile imageAUTHOR

      Titia Geertman 

      6 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      @Fiorenza: Oh that's very interesting too, didn't know they did that. I know the herdwick. Close to me just across the border in Belgium they have some. They're pretty sheep to look at with their white faces.

    • Fiorenza profile image

      Fiorenza 

      6 years ago from UK

      Interesting to read about Dutch sheep. Here, the ones I know most about is the Herdwick, a beautiful sheep found only in the Lake District, and distinctive because it "hefts", which is an old dialect word meaning it is territorial so if land is sold with the sheep on it, the sheep must be included. Each ewe teaches its lamb the layout of the land and they "heft" and know that as their home.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      sheep are so fun

    • Expat Mamasita profile image

      Expat Mamasita 

      6 years ago from Thailand

      Raising rare breed sheep sounds really interesting. Thank you for sharing

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 

      6 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      What a cool, interesting lens, and I love your pictures! My husband and I lived on a farm for a while where we helped raise rare breeds of cows, pigs and chickens. The owners of the farm got some rare breed sheep just before we moved away, but I don't remember what type they were. The only sheering experience I've had, though, was with angora goats, and, wow, was that hard with their loose skin!

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 

      6 years ago

      Your sheep are beautiful, Titia!

    working

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