Products from sheep

Meat constitutes about 80 % of the income from sheep, wool and felts about 20 %, (though recent numbers show a decrease). A less well-known by-product is the cultural landscape since the sheep keep the vegetation in check.

Compared with many other European countries, animal welfare has been a major focus, everything from sicknesses, use of anti-biotic, to pollution in the ground water and residue from fertilizers and insecticides. There is an increased focus on documenting how the actual production takes place. Sheep differ from other live-stock, as they collect so much of their own food and graze on non-arable land. In a time where the population is in explosive growth without the grain harvest being able to keep up, the ability to transform grass into products people can use is actually very sustainable.

The lighter meat-types (pork and poultry) are those increasing the most, red meat is flat – mutton has fluctuated a lot – both due to price, focus on fat and the Chernobyl-disaster. Scrapie – and whether this illness could be transferred via meat – constituted another set-back for mutton (1996). The trust has been re-established, and the popularity of mutton has increased. The popularity of traditional mutton- and lamb-based meals has also increased the last years – typical West-coast specialities like “smalahovud” and ”pinnekjøtt”, along with “får-i-kål”, lamb-chops, “fenalår”, etc. Could possibly other products be developed? (The article does not mention the popularity of mutton among Muslims, which also ensures increased sales.)

Meat is classified according to the EUROP-system, and most sheep breeds end up on the bottom-end of the scale (the R-O-P-classes) and the Spæl-sheep especially comes out as a “loser”. The farmer gets a higher price for his meat if he can document how the production takes place, which means each animal must be identified, has to have a health card, the flock must have a report on vaccinations and parasite-handling, forms to be filled out on livestock-sales/buying and on feeding. An interesting niche-product is meat from Wild sheep, which does not fall in under the traditional classifications, so it is sold outside of the traditional system. (Question: Could this information be transferred to wool and utilized to document for example lack of “dipping”?)

About 5 million kilos wool is produced a year. 80% is cross-bred and 20% is from the Spæl-sheep types (Old Norwegian Short Tail Land Breed). Oil and sweat mix and protect the wool from harsh weather conditions (which when washed out becomes lanolin and is used commercially), and can together with dirt and pollutants constitute from 20 – 60% of the unwashed wool. The main volume of Norwegian wool is so-called autumn wool, which is sheared during the fall. The sheep are also sheared during the winter or spring, and this is called all-year wool and is generally a little longer fibers. The wool either becomes carded wool or worsted wool (which is combed in addition, generally the longer fibers so that the yarn is stronger and the surface is smoother than the carded.

Medullation a problem in wool, since these hairs cannot be dyed. Medullation is when an animal fibre has a hollow or partially-hollow core, and they are brittle. It is hard to assess medullation during sorting and classification, and according to Arnfinn Digernes at Rauma, the problem is increasing world-wide and in Norway, though no one knows the reason for this. Vegetable matter in the wool is also a quality-issue. Most of the Norwegian wool has some residue of hay and other plant-matter, which has to be removed down-stream.

The fineness of the wool (and the indication of how soft it is) is measured in a microscope and is called mµ or micron. The Norwegian cross-bred’s wool is between 34 and 46 mµ, while merino wool can be below 20. What people tolerate next to skin varies, but fine wool is generally between 17 and 24 mµ. (The fact that there has been a draught for many years in Australia has resulted in even finer wool, and it is often referred to as “hunger-fine”.) Lamb wool is finer than wool from grown sheep, and it is only sheared in one end, which makes it even softer. This wool used to be graded separately, but now goes in to the C1 grade.

Staple is a term referring to naturally formed clusters or locks of wool fibers throughout a fleece that are held together by cross fibers. The staple strength of wool is one of the major determining factors when spinning yarn as well as the sale price of greasy wool. Staple length generally determines the end use of wool, that is, whether it will be used in weaving or knitting. The longer wools, generally around 51 mm and longer are processed to worsted yarn. Short stapled wools are more profitably used in the where high grade material may be produced from superfine wool.

Up until 1993 Nortura held the monopoly for selling Norwegian wool, but Fatland (a local slaughter-house) and Gjestal spinners formed a competing company which handles about one fifth of the clip. Norwegian wool is graded according to the Norwegian Wool Standard, which aims to meet the market demands. A1 and C1 are the grades that command the highest prices, F1 for spæl-sheep. The price the farmer gets for the wool is dependent on world market-prices and the subsidies from the Norwegian authorities, better qualities also get higher subsidies. In other countries without subsidies, the cost of shearing has at times been higher than the price of wool (which was the back-ground for HRH Prince of Wales Wool Campaign, and with recent developments on the world market – higher cotton-prices for one thing – wool-prices have increased once again and there is no longer a wool-surplus). At the end of the 1990’s about half of the Norwegian clip stayed in Norway, half was exported to Bradford. This has changed drastically and now as little as 10-20 % stays in Norway. Since the sheep spend so much time grazing above the tree-limit and on non-arable land, hardly any chemicals are used to avoid parasites – but since one has not been able to map or guarantee this – it cannot be used in marketing Norwegian wool as the world’s cleanest… (Ticks and intestinal parasites like tape-worm are the main problem for sheep grazing in Norway. Ironically the tick-population is worse because of lack of keeping the under-brush down.)

Other products from sheep
Pelts from sheep have been widely used, 80-90 % are exported (1998) and are known for their excellent quality. Lamb’s pelts are mostly tanned and made in to clothing, gloves, handbags and wallets. Milking of sheep was usual until the early 1900’s, since the milk was used in cheese. In 1992 the idea of producing cheese from sheep’s milk resurfaced, and production of blue cheese was started in Folldal. As a landscape “artist” sheep and goats ensure that Norway does not “grow over” (recent newspaper articles have pointed out that there should be more sheep and goats since Norway is indeed becoming over-grown and that this ultimately will be a problem for the tourist-industry that relies on the cultural landscape as its main selling-point).

About 95% of Norway is non-arable land, but not all is ideal for sheep. Around 1940, sheep accounted for about 30% of the food-uptake on non-arable land, today they stand for around 70%, as the number of cows grazing in these areas has declined. Goats have been constant at about 2-3%. Sheep in Norway graze from the water-front all the way to the mountains and non-arable land is divided in to mountain and hill grounds, forest grounds, heather moors and sea-side wildflower-fields. About 6% of sheep graze on fertilized fields. Spæl-sheep and fur-sheep graze more on low bushes and trees than the cross-bred, and in that way are more like goats (who are known to be even better landscape “artists” than sheep…). On the West Coast and in Trøndelag there are many spæl-sheep who graze outdoors all winter (weather permitting), heather being an important part of their diet – along with herbs, dry grass and seaweed.

(Authors Ole-Hans Lien and Serinius Trodahl “Produkter fra sauen” pp 28-46; Torstein H. Garmo and Erling Skurdal “Sauen på utmarksbeite” pp 159-202 in ”Saueboka”)