Valais Blacknose Coming to the U.S.
Racing the Kiwis to Establish New Markets
By Alan Harman
Originating from Switzerland, Valais Blacknose are a world heritage breed with an estimated global population of just 13,000 or 14,000, verging on an endangered species.
Retired New Zealand veterinarian Dave Barton says the attraction of the breed is its adorable look and friendly nature.
“People fall in love with them at first sight,” Barton says.
“We aim to breed them here in New Zealand with our long game aim to sell purebred embryos to the United States within the next two years,” Barton says.
“Essentially, we are trying to breed up a small flock of purebreds. Males are not really required for this, so we will be selling surplus purebreds periodically—some lambs will be available in coming months.
“They have been described as the cutest sheep in the world, so we expect initial interest—both here and in the U.S.—to be about their looks long before their production characteristics.”
It could be lucrative.
At an auction in Denbighshire, England, 215 miles northwest of London, the top ram sold for £5,390 (US$7,532), while ewes fetched up to £4,400 ($6,154), ewe lambs £1,870 ($2,615) and ram lambs up to £1,265 ($1,769).
Auctioneers Wright Marshall said the sale displayed the Valais Blacknose sheep to their full potential.
“With customers from all over the United Kingdom showing keen interest, the breed has undoubtedly established itself on the U.K. sheep breeding scene,” the company said.
The second annual “Blacknose Beauties” show in Carlisle, England, last year saw a top price of £7,810 (US$10,936) for the reserve overall champion and male champion—a four-month-old lamb.
The little-known Valais sheep date back to at least the 15th Century in the Valais Mountain region in southwestern Switzerland. The canton of Valais is best known as the location of the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in Europe.
The breed was first registered in 1962.
Breed requirements state it is a white sheep, but the head must be black up to the eyes and eye rims. The ears are black right all the way to the head. There must be black on the front knees and hocks as well as black boots. The female has a black bottom.
The rest of their coat is white with a thick coarse carpet-type wool whose micron count is about 30. The staple length of the wool is about four inches after five to six months’ growth and the sheep are shorn twice a year. The wool is exceptionally good for felting.
They should have a large, robust frame and have helical/spiral horns on both sexes. The wool should cover the whole body and legs evenly.
At two years of age the females stand about 31 inches and their weight is 154 to 198 pounds. The males stand 33 inches and weigh 176 to 275 pounds.
By the breed standard, the tails are docked to the top of the hocks.
The meat is low in fat and the sheep are easy lambing. The sheep can lamb three times in two years and is capable of lambing year-round.
The native Swiss society, called Oberwalliser Schwarznasenzuchtverband, (translated, “Upper Valais Blacknose Breeding Association”), was founded in 1948 and reports a reproductive rate of 1.6 lambs a year.
The breed is generally referred to as Walliser Schwarznasen in Switzerland.
But for a lot of people this will be irrelevant—the sheep are as cute as a button and many will likely be destined to become family pets.
They have a friendly nature and are easily tamed and lead-trained.
New Zealand’s Tie-In
The New Zealand connection began in 2015 after Robyn How and Sue Wylie went to a Valais show in the United Kingdom.
By their own admission, they became obsessed with the breed.
They met breeders and talked to an embryo transfer company that could do the semen collection and embryo work.
A syndicate of 10 New Zealand farmers, vets and geneticists formed a company, Remarkable Valais Ltd. in November 2016, to work on the importation of the embryos.
“We began the long and arduous task of convincing the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries to issue the import standard required for ovine semen and embryo from the U.K.,” says Barton, a shareholder in Remarkable Valais.
“In 2016 we met with breeders in the U.K. and attended Valais sheep shows throughout the country.
“After deciding on the genetics we wanted, we imported embryos and semen into New Zealand.”
The syndicate worked with Steve Jones and Richard Pilkington from Denbighshire to bring in embryos and semen and paid £5,390 (US$7,532) for an outstanding young ram that had previously been selected for semen collection for New Zealand.
“We also imported about 200 straws of Valais semen which we will use to impregnate the ewe lambs when they reach reproductive age,” Barton says.
In late August last year, the first Valais lambs were on the ground in New Zealand.
“Our lambs were born in one of the wettest winters we have had in our area, but with our amazing midwives on hand at every birth, our lambs thrived,” breeder Robyn How says.
“Two of the ewe lambs needed a little bit of extra care—we weren’t taking any chances with these lambs—and we ended up hand rearing them.
“They are the most amazing breed, quiet, gentle and very loving. The cuddliest and most affectionate sheep you will ever meet.”
That was the reaction when the sheep made their first public appearance at an agriculture show in February.
The local newspaper had a front-page story and Barton said there was a lot of interest.
“We had a very good site and had lots of people there most of the day,” he says. “I don’t know that of the people attending we had many potential buyers, but we will have to wait and see.
“We even had two couples where the female partner said she might agree to marriage if the male partner bought some sheep,” he says.
Valais Blacknose Work Inside the United States
There are no known full-blooded Valais Blacknose Sheep in the United States, although a number of people are reportedly working on creating a U.S. breed society and developing a breed registry.
Laurel Highland Farm, in Cogan Station, Pennsylvania, was expecting its first 50 percent Valais crossbred lambs to be born in April.
Laurel Highland Farm owners Mary Jean Gould-Earley and husband Edward T. Earley, a veterinarian, in 2016 became one of the first to import Valais Blacknose sheep purebred genetics into the U.S. in the form of frozen semen from Highland Valais Blacknose Sheep Scotland.
“This saga began in late 2014 when we came across a video of these sheep and we have been working on finding a way to acquire them ever since,” Mary Jean says.
“At first it seemed impossible, as there was also a ban on semen import at the time. Nonetheless, we went ahead and acquired suitable foundation ewe lambs in early 2015, hoping that by the time the lambs were mature that semen would become available. As luck would have it, the ban on semen import was lifted in 2016.
“Currently the USDA does not allow importation of embryos or live sheep, so ‘breeding-up’ is the only legal way to have this breed here in the U.S. right now,” Mary Jean says.
New Zealand growers, eyeing the U.S. market, had a head start because they could import or breed embryos, while the U.S. doesn’t currently allow European sheep embryos to enter the country.
Laurel Highland Farm’s foundation ewes are either purebred Scottish Blackface, or half-bred Scottish Blackface/Leicester Longwool F1 crosses.
“We specifically chose the latter cross as we felt they may have more in common with purebred Valais Blacknose, with the Leicester Longwool genes adding a larger frame, longer fleece, wool forelocks, wool on limbs, more docile temperament,” Gould-Earley says.
“The Scottish Blackface, of course, adds genetics for black faces and black limbs, as well as horns in both sexes, mountain hardiness, Roman noses, and plenty of fleece.
“Theoretically, the more genes that the foundation ewes share in common with the purebred Valais Blacknose, the fewer generations will be required for the offspring to look like the real deal.”
Each generation at Laurel Highland Farm will be bred to pure Valais Blacknose semen.
“Our foundation ewes were successfully bred in late 2017, via laparoscopic artificial insemination and we are expecting our first lamb crop this spring. We are also planning on breeding a few additional ewes for a fall 2018 crop.”
Laurel Highland Farm expects to have its 50 percent Valais Blacknose lambs available for purchase in 2018.
“These will most likely be available as wethers only, as we need to retain ewe lambs for our F2 generation,” Gould-Earley says.
Hope: Lifting USDA’s Ban
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has proposed removing BSE-related import restrictions on sheep and goats and most of their products. It says its proposal in general aligns with guidelines set out in the World Organization for Animal Health’s Terrestrial Animal Health Code.
Gould-Earley says she spoke with a vet at USDA and was told the rule change is a priority for them.
“Assuming it goes through, they will then have to develop new import protocols in accordance with the rule changes, so this will all take time, but hopefully it will happen soon,” she says.
“In the meantime, we will continue with our breeding-up program as it could still be a while before any rule change and import paperwork is in order. And there’s no guarantee that will happen.
“Breeding-up may continue after that as well anyway, given the high cost of importing live sheep and embryos with current extremely high demand and a very limited supply likely to continue well into the foreseeable future.”
First Valais Blacknose 50-Percent Crossbred Lambs Born in U.S.
Oregon producers Martin and Joy Dally notified us in March that their first Valais Blacknose cross lambs had been born at their farm.
Martin Dally operates Super Sire Ltd., which offers genetics for the sheep industry.
The couple started the paperwork in 2014 and eventually were given approval to import Valais semen from the United Kingdom.
They used Teeswater and Gotland ewes for the project.
Until retiring, Martin Dally spent most of his 25-year career at University of California-Davis directing the sheep research programs.
Joy is part of the effort to organize a Valais Blacknose Sheep Society and website, to help the new breed get a foothold in the U.S.
“This isn’t a breed that commercial breeders in the United States are likely to run three to four hundred head,” she says. “But because of its visual appeal and calm nature, I do believe it will be one that may be added to small farm flocks for its fiber and appearance.”
Originally published in the May/June 2018 issue of sheep!.