Swedish Gotland Pelt Sheep

When our family sat talking and dreaming about having a farm, we knew we wanted animals with links to our ancestors. My Swedish great grandfather, Karl Schmidt was a vividly coloured character with a love of cooking, sailing boats and adventure. Sheep probably didn’t feature in his life but we saw the Swedish Gotland Pelt and fell in love.

Before purchasing our first Gotlands we had gone to a farm to buy some nice sheep just to keep the grass down. The pleasant chap directed us to point out the ones we wanted from the mob and said he’d deliver them. Wonderful. Until they arrived and I felt very sure that we’d been gypped. The Motley crew were odd in appearance and quite half-witted. We struggled to get them to behave and then lambs popped up. Turned out a wether was a Ballsup and he’d quietly sired a multitude of lambs. They were all sold to a chap who simply wanted lawn mowers and wasn’t concerned about brains, beauty or manageability.

We were now “experienced” sheep farmers and ready to get serious about establishing a flock. I spotted some Gotlands on Trade Me and hit the Buy Now believing Masterton to be just south of Hamilton. My beloved sighed and drove off to meet the loveliest couple who sold us some sweet ewes. Bruce even returned with a hand-knitted Gottie hat to which he is very attached. Next, we bought a very fine ram and his wethered brother for company.

Chicago has been a most successful ram. He charms the ewes and fathers superb lambs. His fleece sells each year for about $70 as it is a heavy, strongly curled, steel grey. It’s been made into very rugged, masculine jumpers, a felted shawl, a bag and a few hats.  However, he can be a bit naughty with men giving them a bunt up the bottom when given the opportunity. Most Gotland rams are pretty well behaved but they can challenge as they age. Firm, kind handling should minimise the behaviour.

We ensure that Chicago has a special friend so he’s a happy boy while not with the ewes. Jensen is a Finnish Landrace and he brings a perfect balance as an excellent role model. The other rams all live together and are known as “The Gentle Bachelors” They can all be hand-fed, patted and told what to do.

The ewes live with their lambs and our Finn sheep and they are truly very cuddly and love a head massage. They generally have one or two healthy lambs and are very maternal. We have never had to bottle feed a Gottie and the ewes are so smart about caring for their lambs. They ensure the lambs are tucked up away from the wind and often use the sun-warmed rocks. Lovely big, productive udders with teats at an angle suited to their offspring (rather than animals bred for commercial milking with vertical teats) ensure the babies grow strong and healthy.

Gotlands are born with jet black, silken coats (prized generations ago for fur coats) and change colour as they age. Their faces and legs are black with no wool – barrels on toothpicks. A little white on their noggin or around their face and nose is fine and the fleece can range from cream through greys and silver. There is debate as to whether browns are acceptable. In the USA they have white and moorit with bloodlines from Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark and the Netherlands. We have a white Gotland ram – a fluke and he’s gorgeous. His feet and nose are black and conformation very Gottie and suitably masculine.

The Vikings bred them on the island of Gotland using Karakul, Romanov and the primitive Gute Sheep with magnificent horns. Their wool was used for clothing, furnishing and sails but the sheep also travelled with the seafarers so they could enjoy the fine-grained, tasty meat.

Gotlands are polled but still enjoy a fair go at head butting to sort out the hierarchy within the flock. Their very thick craniums are built to withstand the serious-looking action. Training in the art begins as wee lambs. It’s hilarious watching them line up for a charge only to misjudge it and fall over. Their Mums call a halt to play when they’ve seen enough.

The wonderfully lustrous wool is just so delicious. People love the variety and we enjoy seeing the sheep grow and develop their own style. Ringlets, gentle waves, tight curls and prettily crimped; extremely soft through to wool perfect for a farm jersey. Colour can be fairly uniform or have a unique palette. We don’t test wool at our place, preferring to just decide on purpose through feel and appearance. The poo-covered stuff and rough bits make first-rate compost and mulch.

Gotlands are very good doers, nibbling on all sorts including pesky gorse sprouts. They will thrive with fair pasture, quality hay, sheep nuts and spare produce. They are very partial to treats making management a breeze. We have even sold a few to folk who have successfully house-trained their Gotties. They’re very inquisitive animals, following us anywhere and appearing to enjoy watching us. We love watching them too as they’re full of character and so playful.

There are almost no health issues but we do vaccinate and drench as required. They are resistant to parasites, facial eczema, foot disease and other illnesses that can plague sheep. Their naturally short tails are a plus – although we believe it’s unnecessary to dock the tail of any animal. They are a relatively small breed so aren’t too hard to deal with when having to administer treatments.

We also breed Finnish Landrace sheep and they are said to be the pale version of the Gotlands. We find this to be true. A few were crossbred using our Chicago with Finn ewes and the lambs are neat. Essentially white with a hint of ginger and the fleece an even blend of the two breeds. Finn wool is very finely crimped with amazing lustre and softness.

It is important to maintain rare breeds alongside the popular commercial stock. We understand the usefulness of Merino, for example, and could not compete but these minority breeds do have so much to offer and diversity is our strength. We are happy to speak with people and visitors are most welcome to our farm. www.batesandkeenfamilyfarm.co.nz

Davina Keen

11th June 2021