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

Updated on November 18, 2018
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.

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

Why Is Breed Named After the Province of 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 the big Drenthe Heath Sheep Herd in Ruinen (Drenthe)
Old Postcard of the big Drenthe Heath Sheep Herd in Ruinen (Drenthe) | 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 Nearly Removed This Breed

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.

Old type horned Drenthe Heath Sheep Ewe
Old type horned Drenthe Heath Sheep Ewe | Source
Old type hornless Drenthe Heath Sheep ewe
Old type hornless Drenthe Heath Sheep ewe | Source
Old type Drenthe Heathsheep ram
Old type Drenthe Heathsheep ram | 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 fell in love immediately with their beautiful appearance and 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 with Lambs
My first two Drenthe Heath Sheep with Lambs | Source
Small flock of Drenthe Heath Sheep
Small flock of Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source

I Became a Sheep Inspector

A very, very cold inspection, February: temp was -7C (19.4F)
A very, very cold inspection, February: temp was -7C (19.4F) | Source
Very, very hot inspection, temp was about 32C (89.6F) I'm sitting under my fishing umbrella.
Very, very hot inspection, temp was about 32C (89.6F) I'm sitting under my fishing umbrella. | Source
Inspection of the teeth
Inspection of the teeth | 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.

Change in color from lamb to adult ewe in Drenthe Heath Sheep
Change in color from lamb to adult ewe in Drenthe Heath Sheep | Source

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.

Multicolored sheep
Multicolored sheep | Source
Multicolored sheep
Multicolored sheep | Source
Multicolored sheep
Multicolored 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

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Titia Geertman

    Love to read your comments on my rare sheep breed

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      • Titia profile imageAUTHOR

        Titia Geertman 

        7 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 

        7 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 

        3 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, MLS 

        4 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 

        5 years ago from New Jersey

        Very nicely done. I learned a lot. Thanks!

      • kmhrsn profile image

        kmhrsn 

        5 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 

        5 years ago

        Nice lens, thanks for sharing.

      • profile image

        kimadagem 

        5 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 

        5 years ago

        Great Lens! very informative

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        5 years ago

        nice lens

      • lesliesinclair profile image

        lesliesinclair 

        5 years ago

        Excellent presentation of this valuable subject.

      • greenmind profile image

        GreenMind Guides 

        5 years ago from USA

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

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        5 years ago

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

      • Kylyssa profile image

        Kylyssa Shay 

        5 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 

        5 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 

        5 years ago

        great photos

      • VineetBhandari profile image

        VineetBhandari 

        5 years ago

        Great information & beautiful pics

      • poldepc lm profile image

        poldepc lm 

        5 years ago

        Very informative lens

      • tabster2 profile image

        tabster2 

        5 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 

        5 years ago

        Great images

      • Grasmere Sue profile image

        Sue Dixon 

        5 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 

        5 years ago

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

      • Titia profile imageAUTHOR

        Titia Geertman 

        5 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.

      • BobZau profile image

        Bob Zau 

        5 years ago

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

      • SandraWilson LM profile image

        SandraWilson LM 

        5 years ago

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

      • moneyrat profile image

        moneyrat 

        5 years ago

        They look like a tough breed. A great lens !

      • GeekGirl1 profile image

        GeekGirl1 

        5 years ago

        the Drenther Moor sheep looks cool.

      • kindoak profile image

        kindoak 

        5 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 

        5 years ago from Manila Philippines

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

      • Titia profile imageAUTHOR

        Titia Geertman 

        5 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 

        5 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 

        5 years ago

        sheep are so fun

      • Expat Mamasita profile image

        Expat Mamasita 

        5 years ago from Thailand

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

      • Ramkitten2000 profile image

        Deb Kingsbury 

        5 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 

        5 years ago

        Your sheep are beautiful, Titia!

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