History of the Breed

The Isle of Ouessant, off the coast of Brittany, is swept by the full force of Atlantic weather, and its hardy sheep adapted to survive in all weathers on poor grazing.  

Sailors and visitors to Ouessant noted its peculiar small sheep as long ago as 1754.  In 1899, Paul Gruyer noted "A thick fleece covers them, a kind of hair impervious to the rain, which makes them appear to be of a reasonable size.  But when the scissors have passed over them, there are only beasts below the size of a dog.  Two people easily eat one of their legs whose flesh is very tasty."   and added that "In the second half of the nineteenth century, small Ouessant sheep were sold to Champagne where they were sought both by the owners of villas to adorn their parks and by butchers who bought them as adults and sold them as lambs"

Bred for wool and meat - in 1852 it was reported that the island supported 6,000 sheep on its 4,000 acres - the sheep were predominantly black (the preferred colour for clothing) although whites were also on the island - a white lamb was presented to Princess Bacciochi de Medici, cousin of the French Emperor, visiting Ouessant in 1861.  In the early 20th century the Ouessant was crossed with white sheep, perhaps from the Arrée Mountains, to increase its size and to take advantage of newly available wool dyes.  By 1920 the number of true Ouessant sheep on the island had halved to 3,000 from where they had completely disappeared by 1930.  In 1935, the Greek ship MYKONOS ran aground on the north of the island, releasing a ram and two ewes, but the impact of these immigrants on the disappearance Ouessant breed has probably been exaggerated in local folklore.

With no sheep left on Ouessant, the breed survived only in the flocks exported in the 19th century to adorn the parks of villas and chateaux in mainland France.  Between 1946 and 1976, Paul Abbé the founding president of the French breed society, GEMO, identified four populations of Ouessants in France, including 10 sheep at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris; each population or strain had slightly different characteristics.  M. Abbé formed GEMO in 1976 and worked to develop the Ouessant strains to reconstruct the breed and preserve it from extinction.  In 1977,  486 animals were recorded; there are now several thousand Ouessant sheep in flocks in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland.