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A sheep that stands out from the flock

The endangered Roux du Valais

(swissinfo.ch)

Canton Valais was once home to many different types of sheep, but competition from fast-breeding modern varieties has led to some of the old breeds dying out.

The Roux de Bagues, a red wool variety, black Lötschen sheep and Visp sheep are now extinct.

One of the few ancient, indigenous breeds to have survived is the Roux du Valais or Walliser Landschaf.

This breed was once prized for its red, rough wool. There was no need to dye it, and it was considered healthy and warm.

But by the 1980s, only a handful of farmers were still rearing them and the herd was severely endangered.

Sheep breeders unite

The Swiss Breeding Association for Valais Rural Sheep was founded in 1994. Along with the Swiss environmental foundation, Pro Specie Rara, it looks after the herd book, entering genetic details of all newborn lambs.

The Association provides farmers with animals for mating, taking care to avoid the risk of inbreeding.

It also has a network of experts who advise breeders, judge and market the animals. There are now 500 Roux du Valais in the core herd - still a critical number.

Far from the Madding Crowd

I met breeder Thomas Nyffeler at his farm in the remote village of Eigen, in the lower Bernese Alps.

Thomas only recently purchased the old wooden building with its two hectares of land, and was busy carrying out repairs as I pulled up outside. This is a far cry from his normal day job as a teacher in a school for handicapped children.

The farm enjoys breathtaking views over the valley below, where his 22 Roux du Valais graze on rich green pastures. The sheep edged forward to have a good look at me, as I entered their pasture.

Thomas explained that he began sheep farming in 1996 as a result of his children's passion for the animals: "I used to go for walks with the children and as babies they adored sheep. In the end a sheep breeder asked me if I wanted to take over his pasture, and that's what got the ball rolling:"

Thomas was fascinated by the curly horns of the Roux du Valais. He found them approachable and friendly, but at the same time independent.

They are robust, light on their feet and very well adapted to Alpine pastures. Their woolly coats are fast growing and protect the animals well from the winter elements.

They're also easy-going and content to eat grass, hay in winter, and the occasional ear of corn.

Against modern farming methods

Thomas chose this breed is also a kind of protest against modern sheep farming methods.

"With modern sheep, the idea is to get the animal to slaughtering age in record time, so that the product can be sold as quickly as possible," he said. In this process, other qualities get lost, like the independence and robust health of the old breeds. I don't have to pay the vet to see these animals".

His ewes produce one or two lambs per litter, unlike intensively farmed modern sheep, which normally produce three lambs in a litter. Thomas maintains that this generally necessitates a Caesarean section for delivery.

The meat is sold to a select group of customers, who pay per kilo of mutton.

Thomas was unwilling to discuss prices. He simply pointed out that, as it takes his Roux du Valais longer to mature to slaughtering age than modern sheep, this is reflected in the meat price.

Since the teacher started farming, his children have stopped eating meat. They say they cannot bear to eat the animals they regard as pets.

Branching out

Thomas is so enthusiastic about breeding that he is now considering branching out.
"I've never thought to myself, I don't want to see these animals any more, I'm going to stop all this. On the contrary, I tend to think, 'Ah those goats, I would be interested in them". Or, 'Those cows from Graubunden - they'd be good'. I'm thinking much more along these lines than thinking, 'Hold on, you've got a profession and children. Don't overdo it'.

Thomas has no plans to give up the day job, however. The Roux du Valais may have nice curly horns and trusting natures, but there are no great profits to be made from rearing them. Above all, it's a labour of love.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt

In brief

At the beginning of the nineties, Thomas Nyffeler, a teacher in a school for handicapped children, never imagined that he would one day be breeding rare sheep. This is the story of how a crazy idea became a serious business, all in the name of preserving an endangered species.

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Key facts

The Roux du Valais have curly horns, are independent-spirited but also approachable and friendly.
They used to be coveted for their red wool, which did not need to be dyed.
Interest in the breed waned with the introduction of fast-growing modern sheep.
Roux du Valais have litters of one or two sheep and rarely become sick.

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