The Belgian Milk sheep is a dairy-type sheep, with long thin legs and a cream colored fleece. The tail and chest are devoid of wool. In fact, in the Flemish dialect, this sheep is also know as the Ratstaartschaap, or the “Rat Tail sheep.” The belly, the head, the tail and the area around the base of the tail and part of the neck are slightly hairy and without wool. Belgian Milk sheep are very big sheep: an ewe has a minimum shoulder height of 75 cm, while a ram has a minimum 85 cm. The Belgian Milk sheep is definitely a herd animal, and is very fertile.
Even though its name indicates a unique tendency for milk production, these sheep were and are also bred for their excellent wool, and on a minor level for their meat. Their milk has a very creamy flavor, and at least one producer is still known to make cheese out of it. The milk is very adapted to cheesemaking due to its high dry matter content. The wool is of very high quality as it doesn’t contain kemp (a coarse fiber), and so it is very soft – excellent for spinning. Also the meat is highly valued, with a lower than usual amount of intramuscular fat and a higher level of proteins.
This sheep probably descends from the Flemish sheep (Vlaamse schaap/mouton Flamand), first documented in the 1600s, and also related to the Polder Sheep (Polder schaap/mouton des Polders) of the North Sea coast that have been documented since the Middle Ages. The Flemish Polder sheep emerged as breed selected for milk production starting in the 1800s, and after World War II, the remaining Flemish milk sheep were all united under the breed name of Belgian Milk sheep. Today, the Belgian Milk sheep can be raised along the North Sea coast as well as in the green hilly areas of the Ardennes. Thanks to its rusticity and adaptability, and the similar climate between these various regions, this breed is not strictly linked to one specific place of Belgium.
By the early 2000s, there were only just over a thousand Belgian Milk sheep left, being raised by 40-50 commercial farmers, with milk, cheese and meat from the breed for sale in a few specialty shops. No exact number is known for the amount of hobby breeders who raise this breed for their own personal use. One reason for its decline is the European Union agricultural polices after World War II, which introduced subsidies for the breeding of cows, causing many farmers to abandon sheep production and move into more intensive cattle breeding, often with hybrid, commercialized breeds. The numbers speak for themselves: 100 years ago, there were still 200,000 Belgian Milk sheep; by 2011 there were only 1200 left. This breed is clearly endangered, given its low numbers and limited geographical distribution.