Google ‘the cutest sheep in the world’ and you will find countless images of fluffy, black-faced sheep that look as if they belong in a toy store rather than on a farm.
This ‘cuteness factor’ was the reason Andrew and Leigh-Anne Peake, of Rose Creek Valais Black Nose in Cambridge, New Zealand, wanted to keep a few of these Swiss sheep as pets.
After exhausting efforts to import their first sheep, and the subsequent realisation that Valais Black Nose not only make great pets but are also hardy and have good meat traits, the Peakes decided to establish New Zealand’s first Valais Black Nose stud.
Valais Black Nose
The Valais Black Nose originates in the Valais region of Switzerland. The lower valleys are dry, but considerable rain and snow fall on the mountain peaks, some of which are higher than 4 000m.
Traditionally, the sheep spend half of the year in the mountains and then come down for winter.
Known as the Walliser Schwarznasenschaf, they are mentioned in Swiss historical documents dating back to the 15th century, and some think the breed was already established in 5 000 BC.
Twice in its history, the breed nearly became extinct. On the first occasion, it nearly succumbed to disease, and on the second, government authorities tried to convince farmers to crossbreed for better meat yield.
The breed is renowned for its charming looks and friendly temperament. According to Leigh-Anne, the sheep enjoy interacting with humans, and thus make excellent pets. Demand from the US is particularly high.
“[Apparently], when people hike in the Valais area in Switzerland, flocks of sheep follow them for kilometres,” she says.
Bringing the first Valais Black Nose into New Zealand was not easy, says Leigh-Anne. Their first success came when the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries changed import regulations and allowed embryos into the country from the UK and Scotland.
However, the available embryos did not pass required animal health testing and the process was stalled by several years.
“We received a call one day and were told that 20 embryos that had passed all the tests were available. They were flushed, implanted into ewes, and we got 12 lambs from them,” she recalls.
“We were then told that 14 more embryos were available. Thirteen lambs were born from the second batch. That’s a miraculous 94% success rate, against a usual 62% success rate for embryo flushing.”
Although many farmers who want to establish new breeds begin by ‘breeding up’ (crossbreeding until they have an almost 100% purebred animal) the Peakes decided against this and imported only pure genetics from the UK and Scotland.
With sound genetics as their foundation and an aim to establish a small but ‘perfection-oriented’ stud, they began selecting with breed standards in mind from the very first lamb.
They now own 13 ewes and five rams. The rest, which failed to meet breed standards, were castrated and sold to a petting zoo.
“From the get-go, we chose embryos from different genetic lines, so we had variety even in this small flock,” explains Leigh-Anne.
To assist with breeding selection, the Peakes have sought assistance from South African breeding software BenguFarm. This assists in proposing matings and keeping accurate breed records.
Despite their flock being so small, they have also received help from the UK Valais Black Nose community.
Breeders there helped trace the parentage of Rose Creek Valais Black Nose embryos, and the Peakes now have genetic records up to the great-grandparents of all their sheep. Records show that two of their rams have award-winning rams in their ancestry.
Of the many traits the Peakes look for in their stud animals, conformation plays a large role.
“All Valais have black ears, knees, feet and hocks,” says Andrew.
“The ewes must have black under their tails, and the rams must have a black scrotum. Although both sexes have horns, the rams’ are large and spiral, and the ewes’ are flatter.”
Because the breed standards specify clearly which features ram and ewe lambs must exhibit in terms of their appearance, initial selection and record-keeping can be done by simple visual appraisal.
The sheep must have a long back and even shoulders and rump. They should also have a black face with a Roman nose. Being a mountain breed, it has straight legs and a long body.
The sheep grow 30cm of wool a year and though it is coarse and not sought after for fine garments, it is regarded as some of the best wet-felting wool. Being long and curly, the wool is also used to produce slippers and carpets.
UK and Scottish breeders greatly assist the Peakes in interpreting breed standards as well as they can from photographs, and European breeders have helped by posting examples of good and bad conformation traits on Facebook.
“We learn a lot from photographs,” says Leigh-Anne. “We can compare the written standard against the visual.”
The couple plan to attend judging clinics in Switzerland to learn better how to assess breed standards.
Leigh-Anne says that they hope the Valais Black Nose will become a commercial meat breed.
The animals grow fast, and the meat is purported to have 50% less fat than other sheep breeds, which would appeal to a more health-conscious market. The rams grow as large as 125kg, and the ewes reach 80kg.
“With thousands, one could potentially enter the meat market,” she says.
Feed and health
All sheep in New Zealand are grazed on ryegrass. However, the Valais Black Nose, being mountain foragers, prefer twigs, sticks and dry matter like hay.
“We’ve also seen them eat bark,” says Andrew.
The sheep are drenched for worms and parasites, and receive a zinc supplement to assist against facial eczema, which all New Zealand livestock are exposed to.
One aspect that is different from other sheep is that Valais Black Nose need hoof-trimming in a country like New Zealand. In mountainous areas, such as Switzerland, rocks wear down their hooves.
The Peakes believe that by putting rocks in their paddocks, which the sheep immediately and playfully jumped onto, they will be able to solve this challenge.
In addition, as many farms in New Zealand are on what is known locally as ‘hill country’, letting the sheep graze here may negate the need for trimming hooves.
As mentioned, there is considerable demand for the breed from the US. Currently, only semen straws are permitted, but US authorities are working with the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries, and an avenue to export embryos may open soon.
With semen, US-based breeders have to breed up, but if embryos can be made available, they will be able to raise purebred sheep.
“Locally, one can get a straw of semen for US$150 [about R2 200], but with high demand, we can sell semen straws to the US for as much as US$400 [R5 800] each.”
Demand for the breed is also high in New Zealand, with the Peakes recently selling a ewe for NZ$10 000 (R93 700).
“We’re in this for the long haul,” says Leigh-Anne. “We treat our animals well and won’t, for example, flush embryos too early. Some have done this, and it damages the ewes’ reproductive system. We’ll always keep the animal’s best interests in mind.”
The Peakes run tours on their farm, hosting weekly visitors to their small flock.
“Our primary interest was to own some of the cutest sheep in the world for our own enjoyment, but the commercial side is becoming more interesting,” says Andrew.
Email Andrew Peake at [email protected].