On the first stop of our European wool tour for Wovember Words, we’re thrilled to tell you about the Alpines Steinschaf. We are hoping that by the end of the month, we will all know more words for sheep in different languages. In Austria, in which German is the most commonly spoken language, the word for sheep is Schaf.
The Alpines Steinschaf is one of four breeds in the Steinschaf group, the others being the Krainer Steinschaf, the Montafoner Steinschaf and the Tiroler Steinschaf. These breeds are thought to have derived from the mediaeval Zaupelschaf type, or from the older Torschaf, and are believed to be the oldest sheep breeds of the eastern Alps.
At the start of the twentieth century the Alpines Steinschaf was widely distributed in the eastern Alps. In Austria it was found mainly in Salzburg, but also in Carinthia, North and East Tirol and in Vorarlberg. In Germany it was common in the Bavarian districts of Berchtesgaden and Traunstein and in the south-east part of Rosenheim. In Italy it was present in the Eisacktal, the Passeiertal, the upper Pustertal and in the upper Vinschgau, in the autonomous province of Bolzano; by 1964 the population in this area had fallen to below 1000 head.
In 2009 the Alpines Steinschaf was named “endangered livestock breed of the year” by the German Gesellschaft zur Erhaltung alter und gefährdeter Haustierrassen, a national association for the conservation of historic and endangered breeds of domestic animals. In 2014, it was listed as “extremely endangered” on the red list of endangered animal breeds of the GEH.
A total population of 491–650 was reported by Austria in 2012; Germany reported 791 head in 2013.
The Alpines Steinschaf is a fine-boned mountain breed of small to medium size. Rams weigh 55 to 80 kg (121 to 176 lb), and ewes 40 to 60 kg (88 to 132 lb). All coat colours are found. The face and lower legs are without wool; the legs are thin but strong, and the hooves hard. Rams are often horned, ewes less often so. The ears are carried horizontally or slightly drooping. The face and ears may be marked with black.
As you may have gathered from this text, the Alpine Steinschaf is an endangered breed. However, we are very happy to tell you about a cross-border wool project designed to support the conservation of the ‘Alpine Steinschaf’. This heartening report tells a familiar story, describing how breeders of this rare, historic sheep had, for many years, been sending their fleeces to landfill and shearing their animals at a loss. The cross-border wool project aims to raise the return on shearing by adding value to the wool of this historic animal. You can support the breed directly by buying wool products to spin, knit or wear, here.
This is a fantastic example of grass roots activism and of how a small group of people can raise the profile and value of wool!