By Mary O’Malley, Honeysuckle Farm
An ancient variety, Finnsheep are both meat- and wool-yielding animals. Finnish sheep characteristics have been bred for thousands of years.
Stentorp—the farm of Jill Christensen and her husband Heikki Vendelin—is located on a large island in the southwest corner of Finland.
During recent presentations at Dancing Waters farm in Rochester, Wash., and Honeysuckle Farm in Silver Spring, Maryland, Jill explained Finnish sheep characteristics and benefits and their use in Finland. A synopsis of her information follows.
Finland’s Sheep Characteristics and Heritage
Finnsheep belong to the group of Northern short-tailed primitive races of sheep.
Recent DNA and archeological studies show the Finnsheep is one of the oldest breeds, brought to Europe during the Bronze Age (2,500 to 3,700 years ago). Sheep came to Finland from Russia in the east and Sweden in the west.
The Vikings sailed all around northern Europe via the northern Atlantic Ocean under sails made of wool. More sails were needed to increase their ability to travel far and wide, so the Vikings populated the area with sheep.
Genetic studies have made it possible to follow the sheep routes to Finland, where there are three different genetic patterns with different sheep characteristics: Landrace, Aland sheep, and Kainuu Grey. The Kainuu Grey lambs are born black, but start to fade very early.
A total of 150,000 Finnsheep live on 1,500 farms in Finland. Approximately 30,000 of these are registered purebred Finnsheep ewes. There are 70 ram lines of which 30 are still alive. In Finland, a specialist in Finnsheep will consult with a farm and suggest a ram from another farm to purchase to strengthen the bloodlines in your flock.
In Finland adult Finnsheep ewes weigh 143 to 165 pounds; adult rams weigh 187 to 231 pounds. This is quite similar to Finnsheep weights recorded in the United States. Heads and legs of Finnsheep are free of wool, though they occasionally have a small wool-formed fringe.
Finnsheep rams rarely develop horns. Until 1960 it wasn’t possible to register a ram with horns in Finland.
As in the U.S., high fertility in Finnsheep is an asset. A Finn ewe’s maintenance cost compared to the amount of lamb meat produced is low: She’s able to produce them at one year of age and to produce multiple lambs. Ewe lambs can be mated as early as four to five months old; however, the recommended weight for breeding a first time breeding ewe is at least 100 pounds.
It’s not unusual for a Finn ewe to produce twins at her initial lambing; the average first lambing is 1.9 lambs per ewe. However, in later years, she’ll produce an average of 2.8 lambs per lambing. A typical birth weight, taken at three to five days would be eight pounds.
Finnsheep ram lambs may be fertile as early as four months of age. Finnsheep breeders in Finland and here in the U.S. soon learn to separate their ram lambs from their mothers before this time to avoid “surprises.”
A Finn ram’s activity level and high libido make it easy for him serve flocks of 50 ewes and he has strong flock instincts. Studies have shown that the weight of the ram’s testes compared to the live weight of the ram is higher than in other sheep breeds, another sign of fertility. Breeders throughout the world seek these strong sheep characteristics, so semen for importation from Finland is available.
In Finland, breeding mainly focuses on meat production: Attention is paid to growth rate and increasing muscle size. To achieve this goal, crossbreeding with Texels and Dorsets is increasing. However, many shepherds continue to breed purebred Finnsheep because of their preference for this multipurpose breed and to ensure that the unique genetic traits of the Finnsheep are preserved.
Jill breeds only purebred Finnsheep, and while Stentorp sells Finns for breeding and to the meat market, great attention is paid to the Finnsheep wool.
Finnsheep are known for their soft, lustrous wool and large scale of color genes. Of the nearly 30,000 registered Finnsheep in Finland, white sheep make up 60 percent according to the MTT Agrifood Research Center (2015-2016 statistics). Black sheep comprise 23 percent and brown, 14 percent.
Kainuu Gray sheep, found near the Russian border, have a distinctive genome. Currently few in number (319 registered), it’s hoped that with careful breeding, numbers with this sheep characteristic will increase.
Multicolored Finns, those known in the U.S. as carrying a piebald and/or HST (head, socks, and tail) pattern are also few in number.
Breeding for Wool
In Finland, Finnsheep breeders are encouraged to breed according to color: Black to black, white to white, color to like color, etc., in order to keep the genetic colors and sheep characteristics clean. Jill’s sheep are a rich brown as she breeds mostly brown Finns. Comparing pictures of her flock over the years, it’s obvious that her sheep’s fleece is a deeper brown now than when she started. Interestingly, brown and black sheep were defined as endangered at the end of the 20th Century.
Consumer interest in natural colors, as well as European Union (EU) subsidies for environmental work with native breeds, have encouraged shepherds to invest time and resources into raising black and brown sheep. Result: Numbers are increasing.
Besides the Kainuu gray, Aland Sheep are another slightly different, Northern short tail, primitive sheep found in Finland. They inhabit the Åland Islands, part of the Finnish Archipelago Sea in the Baltic sea. The Åland sheep are thought to descend from an ancient sheep indigenous to Swedish Gotland and introduced to Åland during the 1600s. Like the Kainuu Gray, they’re few in number and efforts are being made to preserve them.
Jill has observed that certain wool quality traits can be inherited.
The strongest hereditary connection is between the wool crimp and the grading quality of the wool.
In addition, wool crimp, grading quality, and staple length seem closely connected. She observes that an increase in curl or crimp is associated with shorter, denser wool. With an increase in crimp frequency per unit of length, the diameter of the wool fiber decreases. The luster of the wool is a sheep characteristic affected by feeding and the general health of the animal.
Fine Finnwool Project
To identify objective, readily recognizable wool traits, which shepherds could use to evaluate wool on their home flocks, Scottish Fiber specialists from the Macaulay Land Use Institute, Finnish ag scientists and shepherds like Jill joined together for the Fine Finnwool Project. Participants in the project looked at 800 purebred, six-month-old Finnsheep lambs in Finland, from 1997 through 1999.
Wool was evaluated on three sections of the body: 1) Shoulder, 2) Midsection and 3) Face of the leg above the breech.
The consistency or evenness of the wool in the three sections was graded on a “1” through “5” scale, “5” being the most consistent.
Next the density (crowdedness of wool fibers) on the body was examined, again on a “1” through “5” scale with a “5” being the densest. The crimp (number of curls per unit of fleece length) is counted. For many of us, the easiest measurement tool is to use would be our thumb, tip to first knuckle, or the bone between our knuckles on our index finger.
Other qualities evaluated included the length of staple, the luster (reflection of light in the wool) and the presence of guard hairs. The yield or weight of the wool was also measured.
In 2007, M. L. Puntila, K. Maki, and A. Nylander would utilize this info, as well as other data, to publish “Genetic Parameters for Wool Traits in Finnsheep Lambs,” in the Agricultural and Food Science Journal.
Shepherds attending the presentations were naturally curious about the differences and similarities between raising Finns in Finland and raising them here in the states. Lambing occurs in the sheep house in late February. Jill likes to be available as much as possible during lambing season just to make sure mothering gets off to a good start. Concern over appropriate vaccinations, what to feed sheep, proper use of anthelmintics and nutrition during pregnancy and lactation are shared by Finnbreeders in both countries.
“While we worry about rotating pastures during the summer, the sheep of Stentorp roam free on nearby islands in the Archipelago,” said Jill.
Jill and Heikki utilize three islands, one specifically for the ram lambs and another for ewes and their ewe lambs.
Property owners often rent sheep to keep vegetation under control. They will pay and even put up fences to accommodate the flocks.
While the islands have sources of fresh water, the sheep often seem to prefer the brackish water of the Baltic Sea. Surrounded by Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, the Baltic Sea opens to the Northern Atlantic Ocean at the Danish Straits. The mixture of salty ocean water with freshwater from the approximately 200 freshwater rivers and abundant freshwater run-off from surrounding lands creates a refreshing salinity that is actually rehydrating. It clearly appeals to the sheep, which probably also absorb important minerals when quenching their thirst.
Predators like wolves, bears, and coyotes are not generally a problem during the summer on the islands, as the water creates a natural barrier, though they can be an issue for shepherds 62 miles north of Stentorp. In the winter, when the water is frozen and it is possible to walk, or even drive between islands. Predators can walk to the island. Fortunately, the sheep aren’t roaming free at that time.
To make a living raising sheep for profit, Jill and Heikki use all available resources. Besides sheep for breeding and meat production, they have developed the wool side of their business.
Like wool markets throughout the world, Finnsheep wool suffered from the introduction of synthetic fibers during the 20th century.
In recent history, sheep production has been extremely important to the survival of the resourceful and resilient Finnish people. Families raised a few animals for their own consumption and to provide the raw materials to make their clothing.
The days of spinning one’s own wool into yarn to knit into stockings are remembered! This may explain the lack of popularity of hand spinning, but other fiber crafts are experiencing a resurgence.
There are a few small spinneries that sheep breeders like Jill utilize to process their wool. Stentorp’s fleeces are washed, carded and spun into wool. Local residents hand knit the yarn into a variety of garments.
Sheepskins are sewn into garments like vests and booties. For pelts designated for garments, the sheep are shorn approximately six weeks prior to slaughter to obtain an ideal staple length. These wool products, as well as pelts and yarn, are marketed at craft fairs in Europe.
During summer, when the sheep are grazing nearby islands, Stentorp’s sheep house is thoroughly cleaned and adorned with products for sale, plus interesting fiber and art exhibits. Open air concerts add to the attractions. Stentorp is a popular destination for school groups and tourists from May through September.
Finland tops the list for ideal vacation spots due to enthusiasm for sheep in general and Finnsheep in particular, the beautiful countryside, fascinating history and delightful people. Even Stentorp rents a cottage by the sea. Learn more about Stentorp online at Stentorp.fi and about Finland at VisitFinland.com.
Are you interested in the Finnish sheep characteristics? Do you own Finnsheep? Let us know what you think!
Originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of sheep! and regularly vetted for accuracy.