The Breed

History
These exceptional – looking sheep originate in the mountains of the Valais French (French) or Wallis (German) area of Switzerland. The Valais is divided into 2 halves -the lower part is French-speaking 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. The canton of Valais is widely known for the Matterhorn and resort towns such as Crans-Montana, Saas Fee and Zermatt. It is composed of 13 districts (hence the 13 stars on the flag) and its capital is Sion.

While the British and we in New Zealand have shortened their name to VBN, we have to say out of respect that their correct Swiss name is Walliser (inhabitant of the Valais region) Schwarznasenschaf (Blacknose sheep), or SN for short.

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 The SN probably derives from a cross between black sheep and the “Coppersheep” which is mentioned in the historical documents from the 15th century in Switzerland.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 SN 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 SN 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.

Dual Use
In Switzerland, they are known for being a hardy mountain breed, grazing the steepest stoniest slopes of the Alps. They are known for lambing easily and are able to produce rapidly growing lambs year-round. They have dual use, both for meat and producing coarse carpet grade wool with fibres having an average micron of 38 in mature sheep and lambs 28 – 30. It has proved great for felting. The wool also has a long staple (growing around 30cm annually) making it historically favoured for spinning by the Valais farming women. The fleece also has a white and fluffy look adding to the “cuddly toy” appeal.

In the “Matterhorn Blog”, Paul Julen, 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 are finding 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 specialities 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).

Appearance
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 tail spots. Both sexes have spiral-shaped twisted horns. 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.

Charming nature
People, especially other farmers ask us “but what are they good for?” “Well”, we say, “you have to admit that they are amazing looking”. “Mmmm” they say “but what use are they?” After talking through the part where they are used for meat and wool in their native land we have to tell them that over and above this the Valais has become the darling sheep of the rest of the world and has been dubbed “the world’s cutest breed”. In fact, often they don’t even look real and some people have mistaken them for well-crafted felt projects.

In addition to their 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!

Exports from their native land are carefully controlled with farmers being very protective of their animals which they treat with love and respect and every February they have their own “beauty contest” in Visp. Wearing their traditional copper bells, they are presented to admirers in a large school hall.

British Success story
While numbers of Valais in Britain are still small (around 400), breeders are beginning to gain some notoriety in creating events dedicated specifically to the breed and sales of individual animals are reaching record amounts. One, in particular, was the inaugural holding of the Blacknose Beauties Show, hosted by the UK Valais Blacknose Sheep Society, which saw breeders competing across 13 classes. The aim was to mirror as closely as possible the Swiss system and based the event on the Miss Visp contest. Eight Swiss judges were imported to educate farmers and ensure the standards were upheld.

Links to the Carlisle show -winning breeders and photographs:
Blacknose Beauties – Carlisle. August 2017, MacGregorphotography.com
Valais Blacknose Sheep Society

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