The Valais region of Switzerland follows the Rhone valley from its sources to Lake Geneva. The region is extremely mountainous and includes the iconic Matterhorn. The origin of the Valais Blacknose sheep is not entirely clear. Their name (Walliser Schwarznasenschaf) only dates from 1884, but there are mentions of them as far back as the fifteenth century. They are thought to belong to the Northern Short Tailed group of sheep that includes Shetland and Hebridean sheep in the UK. These breeds travelled all over Europe with the Vikings. The Valais Blacknose has been endangered more than once because fashions in sheep-breeding change (one of the reasons that the Rare Breeds Survival Trust exists). They have always been a dual purpose (meat and wool) breed but breeding to improve the wool has a detrimental effect on the meat and visa versa. Switzerland attempted to standardise their mountain sheep in the 1930s and older mountain breeds suffered accordingly. Diseases such as TB took their toll around the same time. It was not until the 1960s when the breed was officially recognised and they were admitted to the Swiss Sheep Breeding Association that their fortunes began to change. By the 1980s, there were almost 1000 and in 2013, over 17000. There are now around 13000 in Switzerland but these are threatened by the recent return of wolves to the region.
In Switzerland a system of transhumance operates where the sheep are grazed high up in the mountains during the summer months and brought down to lower pastures in the winter,
similar the the hefting of Herdwicks in Cumbria.
The first Valais Blacknose sheep came to the UK in 2014 when they arrived in Northumberland. Being mountain sheep from a demanding environment, they coped well with their new home. They are large sheep, so very good for the meat trade, but their popularity is far more to do with their ‘teddy bear’ appearance and their nick name of ‘the cutest sheep in the world!' Once pictures of them hit social media when they appeared on the BBC Countryfile programme, their popularity increased dramatically. There are now flocks of them all over the United Kingdom and in Northern Ireland. A Welsh bred ram fetched a record 14 000 guineas in a Carlisle auction in 2021.They command a high price in the UK because Switzerland has banned their export.
They are docile and easily tamed, despite their size, so are often kept as pets, even in their homeland.
They also have the unusual trait of being able to breed all year round with is shared with only a few British breeds, the Portland and the Dorset breeds.
I was inspired to create these portraits and write this blog by my neighbour acquiring the ram in the photos above. My particular interest is in their wool, which can grow 30cm in a year, but they are often shorn twice to prevent it reaching this length. The weight of wool that they produce in a year is around 4kg but it is categorised by British Wool as ‘carpet wool’ due to its coarseness (or high micron count of around 38). It has a lustre to it and beautiful loose locks but does not felt well due to it coarseness. What causes wool to felt is the interlocking of the overlapping scales on the surface of the wool. Fine wools, such as Shetland have many more scales per square millimetre than coarse wools and consequently felt much more easily.
The portraits I have created have used some Valais wool, but I have found that my neighbour’s Valais x Dorset Down wool is finer and felts more easily.