Today on our EU tour of sheep and wool, we are quoting from Richard Regnery’s book, Ruminations of a Grumpy Shepherd. Richard and Gretchen Regnery have been raising a flock of white and coloured Corriedale sheep in Door County in northeast Wisconsin for over twenty years, and this book recounts some of their experiences along the way. One chapter documents Richard’s visit to Denmark and he gives such a lovely introduction to meeting sheep and shepherds there that we wanted to share it here. He introduces some of the sheep breeds kept in Denmark and provides lovely descriptions of their fleece and wool… his notes about the yarn from the Danish Landrace sheep are especially interesting and show the kind of generous and adventurous spirit towards sampling different sheep wools that we here at Wovember like to encourage! The Spælsau and Luneburger sheep originate in Norway and Germany but, as we are finding through curating this series, the story of EU sheep is very often one of migration and border-crossings. The Danish word for sheep is får; the word for wool is uld; and the word for yarn is garn. We’d really love to hear from any knitters who have knit with wool from the Danish Landsrace, Spælsau or Luneburger sheep.

Klitfåret, also called the Danish Landrace Sheep, is an example of an old Danish sheep breed that is threatened with extinction. This sheep is part of the restoration project at Vorup Enge, Randers, Denmark; it was taken by Malene Thyssen and released under a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 through Wiki Commons
Klitfåret, also called the Danish Landrace Sheep, is an example of an old Danish sheep breed that is threatened with extinction. This sheep is part of the restoration project at Vorup Enge, Randers, Denmark; it was taken by Malene Thyssen and released under a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 through Wiki Commons

Danish Landrace Sheep

By going to a couple of “living” agricultural village museums, I was able to see a few Danish Landfår (Landrace) sheep (plus a very impressive Danish Landrace goat buck!). They are also known as Klitfår (Dune) sheep, based upon their origin in the West Jylland dune areas.

Dune Heath landscape of Jylland, photograph by Laketown and released through Wiki Commons
Dune Heath landscape of Jylland, photograph by Laketown and released through Wiki Commons

It is a hardy race which could survive in a harsh environment where other breeds fail. Because they later spread over the entire country, the “Landrace” rather than “Dune” reference prevailed. There were early efforts in the 18th century to develop it as a homogeneous breed. The introduction of foreign breeds (especially English) to Denmark tended to eliminate the breed from general use. There are now estimated to be only about 1,100 Landfår remaining.

It is a long-tailed sheep. They are polled and white in colour with the head being either light, dark, or speckled. Legs and face are free of wool. The wool is otherwise dense and appears to be of good quality. At one time, they were reported to produce three to four lambs, but with their drastic population decline and loss of genetic diversity, it is now normal that only one lamb is produced. It is an altogether different sheep than the old Nordic short-tailed breeds. Superficially, they reminded me in appearance of the usual first generation offspring of the cross between white face ewes with black faced rams. I was not able to get a feel of the raw fleece, but was able to purchase a couple of skeins of mill spun yarn. Off-white in colour, it feels rather rough and coarse to me, but that may be biased by the mill spun nature of the yarn. I will wait until we can wash and work with the yarn before I can reasonably comment on it. Sometime, I will try weaving something from it for a better sense of its character.

Spælsau and Luneburger sheep

I had hoped to get good close views of two relatively rare (for Denmark) breeds: Spælsau and Luneburger. Both are represented in the large flock at Lystbækgaard, in northwest Jylland, near Ulfborg. The farm and flock are owned by Berit Killerich. She had been the shepherd for a state owned flock that was used to manage and control the undesirable trees and shrubs which otherwise overgrow the native heath areas which at one time predominated large portions of Jylland. For financial reasons, the government got out of the sheep business. Berit was able eventually to purchase the flock and Lystbækfarm, thus continuing the grazing operation in the heath around Lystbæk. She has established a craft centre at the farm, which now operates much as a cooperative or association. Its purpose is to preserve the old, nearly forgotten handcrafts and traditions and to pass them along to the farm’s visitors. Classes are offered in spinning, weaving, felting, willow weaving and other old crafts.

Spællam - or, Spælsau sheep lamb - photographed by Asj and released through Wiki Commons
Spællam – or, Spælsau sheep lamb – photographed by Asj and released through Wiki Commons

The Spælsau sheep is from Norway and may also be known as the Old Norse Sau or Coloured Spælsau. It is now rare in Norway where less than 1,000 ewes are registered. It is felt that it is the same type of sheep from Viking times that was eventually established on the various North Atlantic islands. It is short-tailed, lacking wool on head and legs. It can be found with and without horns. The fleeces are double coated with a soft fine undercoat and a long, lustrous outer hair. They come in a variety of colours and combinations of colours. Often the outer guard hair and soft undercoat are in different colours. The wool lends itself to spinning and felting. It is a breed that is well suited for habitat maintenance, i.e. they aggressively control tree saplings and bushes, making it well suited as a grazer on the heaths of Jylland. [On Lystbækfarm] I was able to see a small number of the Spælsau ewes up close. The colour and pattern variations were fascinating, especially for someone with a Corriedale perspective. (I could only dream of seeing some of the browns and chestnut shades in our fleeces!) We visited a flock of ewes and lambs in a steady rain; it was easy to see the protection of the double coat at work. Later, I came across one of the ram/ram lamb flocks which had been recently shorn. Without the longer guard wool overlaying the rest of the fleece, the colours were all the more intense.

[Berit’s] flock of Luneburge Heath Sheep were at a distant location and therefore not accessible. The breed actually originates from the large Luneburge heath of northern Germany and are also known as Luneburger or Graue Gehörnte Heidschnucke or Gray Horned Heath Sheep.

German Heidschnucken, photo taken by ArtMechanic and released under a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 through Wiki Commons
German Heidschnucken, photo taken by ArtMechanic and released under a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 through Wiki Commons

Apparently today they have become something of a national landmark for the German heath area, where wandering flocks with their shepherds are supposedly a common sight on the heath. The breed may originally stem from the wild mouflon sheep. It is felt that at one time the breed was found over much of what is now Denmark, thanks again to the Vikings. It, however, did not do well in captive enviroments and gradually disappeared. The current Danish population was imported from Germany in the mid-1930s. At present there are less than 1,000 ewes in Denmark. It is a relatively small sheep, with a grey pelt consisting of a fine wool undercoat and darker long guard hair. The wool is naturally shed in June. Both sexes are horned. I was able to get close to a small group of ewes and lambs at a reproduction Viking village near Ribe in southern Jylland. the uniform grey/black colouration was quite a contrast to the colourful Spælsau. I was also able to find a small supply of their wool. What a dramatic difference between the kempy outer fibre and the soft underwool!

A Return to My Own Home

In the end, it was very good to visit a place I look upon now as my second home. I had time to visit my adoptive family and renew very deep friendships. I was able to visit some very special places that hold wonderful memories. It was pure joy to begin to feel comfortable speaking and understanding Danish as I once did. To be able to combine these very personal experiences with the excitement of exploring a lovely, agricultural environment and communicating with a very warm and friendly group of people that typifies the Danish society was very satisfying. It was also good to return home to Gretchen, the flock and farm. The problems brought upon us by climate change here, in Denmark, and elsewhere were not corrected. In fact they are all the more evident. But I can at least smile a bit more for the moment.

All text © Richard Regnery and taken from pp.226-9 of his highly recommended book, Ruminations of a Grumpy Shepherd published 2010 through Lulu.com press.

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