We’re currently in Italy, and just happened to stumble across a sheepdog demonstration, as you do if you’re of a certain ‘bent’.
The demonstration was part of a two day event in Siena, ‘Nella Vecchia Fattoria’ (In the Old Farm), held at the Fortezza Medicea.
I tried my hand at something new for the blog, a video, well 2 actually. I think they give you a flavour of the demonstration as Patrick, the shepherd, talks the audience through what he’s doing.
In this video clip Patrick introduces sheepdog and demonstrates the dog working to the universal command of ‘come bye’ among others. You’ll notice the commands are all in English, but the rest of the description is in Italian.
In this second clip we see more of Patrick working his sheepdog, using both voice and whistle commands for both close and distant working.
The sheep are Skudde Sheep, a breed more commonly found in Germany, the Baltic Countries and Switzerland, one of which was a ram with impressive horns. They’re about the size of Shetland sheep if you’re more familiar with them, as I am.
Like Shetlands they come in a variety of colours including white, brown, black and grey and they’re an ancient breed, with evidence of having been around during the Iron Age. They also seem to be referred to quite commonly as Viking Sheep on the basis of the claim that the Vikings took them with them on their travels… Some also suggest that they may be ancestors of Shetlands and they certainly share the characteristics of being hardy, able to survive on marginal land, being short tailed and similar in size.
Skudde are they’re used for landscape grazing, meat (although considered a delicacy this is not a primary purpose) and felt, and certainly when we had a look at the sheep close up the fleece seemed to be felting on some of them.
In terms of their fleece, they have relatively fine fibres, dispersed with coarser guard hairs which grow to a staple length of approx 5 inches. Each fleece weighs between 3-5.5 pounds. A Heifer International article on a project in Lithuanian that the ‘underwool is often run through a dehairing machine and then spun into a fine cloth or it may be spun in a natural state producing beautiful rugs and blankets in attractive natural colors’ (1).
The mature Skudde rams on average weight between 35 and 50 kg. And average live body weight of the mature ewes vary from 25 to 40 kg. Regarded as fertile, ewes can lamb up to 3 times in two years and have 1-2 lambs each time.
The rams have the classic small horns whilst ewes can be hornless or have stumps or small hornlets.
Skudde are a rare breed and have enjoyed various degrees of protection in the different areas where there are flocks. The Heifer International Article referred to above and linked below suggests that during the time Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, Skudde were not a recognised breed so enjoyed no protection ad were instead exported to Germany. Certainly, Germany currently has the largest flock of Skudde with about 2,500 animals, compared to 250 in Switzerland and 150 in Austria. In terms of genetic diversity, all these stocks can be traced back to a few individuals (2). This said, this year the German Federal Office for Agriculture and Food placed the Skudde on the endangered ‘Red List’ due to declining numbers with a breeding flock of 205 rams and 2,246 ewes.
In Switzerland, The Association of Swiss Skudde Breeders aims to maintain Skuddes in their original form to retain the valuable characteristics of the Skudde and are therefore against crossing with other breeds, but they are also concerned about the problems of in-breeding. On the basis that the Skudde population in Switzerland is increasing in size and the type is held to be secured, the Skuddes breeders can select according to typical breed features.
In Switzerland, transport company SBB uses Skudde sheep, along with rare breed goats to graze along the rail lines, an important contribution to both railway maintenance and ecological diversity (3). You can even read about the day in the life of Bruna, one such sheep on their website!
If you want to see some incredibly cute pictures of Skudde lambs, the founders of BureBure felted slippers made from their own flock of Skudde in Lithuania and available from Etsy have a behance page too.
If you have any information about Skudde, please feel free to contact me or share the comments below.
All the best,
1 – Heifer Internation Project: Lithuania
2 – Oklahoma State University – breed info
3 – SBB Sheep Maintenance Flock
This website has a comprehensive list of sheepdog handling commands.
This link takes you to a piece on Skudde sheep on the Florence co-op website (Google translated)