The wonderful Ouessant sheep is a rare heritage breed originally from the island of Ouessant in Brittany. Ouessants are renowned for their character, their hardiness and for their status as the smallest naturally occurring breed of sheep in the world.
L’ile d’ Ouessant marks the Westernmost point of metropolitan France and sits off the coast of Brittany. The island is swept by the full force of the Atlantic weather and its hardy sheep adapted to survive in all conditions on poor grazing. As a result, the Ouessant is the smallest recognized breed of sheep in the world.
Some suggest that the breed was introduced to the island by the Vikings, and it was found only on Ouessant until the 19th Century. The inhabitants raised the sheep for wool – from which they used the black to weave their traditional, dark-coloured clothes, with the white mainly being traded due to its higher value due to its ability to be dyed – and for the highly prized, sweet-tasting meat that results from grazing on salt meadows beside the sea.
The breed almost disappeared at the start of the 20th century, with none remaining on the island. There remained in a few isolated flocks adorning chateau and park land on mainland France thankfully, and the breed was saved from extinction and soon gained popularity and support in France and other European Countries. Large populations now exist in France, Holland and Germany who have their own breed societies along with Belgium and Switzerland.
In the UK it is understood that the first Ouessant were imported from France in the 1990’s in small numbers, these were kept in small flocks in farm parks and zoos. During the early 2000’s there were several importations of black and brown Ouessant from Holland, in the years that followed there were several more imports from both France and Holland.
Ouessant sheep are black, white and brown and have a thick fleece of long wool with a dense undercoat. The fleece is of good quality and has a number of uses. The mix of natural colours makes the wool particularly desirable. Ouessant sheep are intelligent, inquisitive, gentle, and full of character. Rams carry impressive, outward turning horns and ewes are polled (do not have horns) though some vestige of horn bud can sometimes be seen. Tails are naturally short and not docked. Adult rams should have a maximum height at the shoulder of 49cm and ewes 46cm.
Ewes characteristically give birth to single lambs which are quick to their feet and eager to the teat. Ewes are keenly protective, milky and attentive to their lambs, making them excellent mothers. Twins do occur but are not typical.
Ouessant are extremely hardy and are considered a low maintenance breed with few health concerns. Ouessants are typically far friendlier than other primitive breeds, easy to tame and can make excellent pets.
The Ouessant Sheep Society was formed by a group of like-minded breeders and enthusiasts in February 2005 and has since grown to include well over 100 flocks across the UK. The Society exists to protect, promote, and conserve the Ouessant breed, providing members with information and advice on the care and welfare of Ouessants, and representing the interests of owners and their sheep in the UK and abroad.
The Society maintains the official register of pedigree Ouessant sheep in the UK, is a DEFRA recognised breed society and in 2021 obtained registered charity status.