Why you should care
Because not only is it the cutest creature — you can also walk it on a leash.
I’m in love with a sheep.
I live with two cats in the middle of Paris in an apartment that’s smaller than 500 square feet, and with a balcony too small to stand on — the closest thing to an outdoor space. But I want a sheep.
Not just any sheep, mind you. I want a Valais blacknose, a Swiss breed with a shaggy white coat, curled horns and, as its name suggests, a black nose. If you’ve ever seen one, it was probably in a tweet with the hashtag #CutestSheepEver. And now the Valais blacknose, which has been bred in the mountains of Switzerland for centuries and lives in Scotland, the Netherlands and Germany, will be an American sheep as well.
“Every time I show someone a photo of the sheep, it’s like a child at Christmas. Everyone wants one,” says Wendy Artzt, who runs the Alabama-based Teton Valais Blacknose Sheep Co. After seeing the Valais blacknose in 2014, Artzt — retired from a Wall Street job and already in the horse game with a ranch of show jumpers — wanted one.
Its personality is more like that of a dog, inquisitive and friendly, and it can be walked on a leash.
So she got one. Or rather, she’ll have one soon. Longtime restrictions on importing ruminants into the U.S. have kept the sheep out of American markets, but the restrictions have recently been relaxed to allow the importation of frozen semen, and Artzt’s farm is the largest importer of Valais blacknose semen in the U.S.
This coming spring, Artzt will have fourth-generation breeding stock — a flock begun with Valais semen and a similar breed of ewe already allowed in the U.S., which means the ewes can be officially registered as Valais blacknose (rams need to be fifth generation).
Sure, you say, it’s the cutest sheep in the world — but it’s still a sheep. Don’t be fooled! Personality-wise, the Valais blacknose isn’t your average sheep — its personality is more like that of a dog, inquisitive and friendly, and it can be walked on a leash. For breeders like Artzt, that’s a huge selling point, especially because Valais blacknose are too expensive to sell for meat. “That would be very expensive lamb chops,” Artzt says, estimating that half-Valais crossbreeds are already selling for about $1,000. By comparison, a market lamb in the U.S. is around $200 or $300.
In Switzerland, Valais are sheared twice a year — their fleece grows about 12 inches annually — and the coarser wool has traditionally been used for carpets and mattresses, Artzt says, adding that Valais fleece has lots of crimp and not as much lanolin as that of other breeds, which keeps the fleece white. “Work with fibers has just gone off the chart globally,” she says, and people are using the fleece for crafts. “Felting as an activity is huge. There are fiber festivals all over the United States,” Artzt says.
Sheep are the fastest-growing hobby livestock in the U.S. — backyard chickens are so 2016 — and looks and personality are likely to count for a lot when people are shopping for a pet that’s also a lawnmower. Bottle-fed lambs tend to think they’re human, which is useful when you have space for only one sheep in the backyard: Though sheep are herd animals, a sheep that thinks it’s a human will assume its herd is you.
Video courtesy of Wendy Artzt.