Rhoenschaf is a medium-sized sheep. Its noble, hornless head with the Roman nose profile is black and slender. The wool starts behind the ears and the sheep is decorated with a dark collar. Ears are long, broad and slightly hanging. Hard hoofs support long, sturdy, white legs, that march easily and help it safely across rough and rocky terrain. It has a long breeding season and lambs easily. The long, white fleece has a fiber diameter of 32 to 35 microns and can be spun into sturdy knitting yarn. The wool yield is 3 to 4 kg and the female sheep weigh 60 to 75 kg, the male 80 to 100 kg. The meat is delicious and has a slight taste of venison. This extremely hardy and frugal landrace is well suited for the wet climates of rough highlands, where it is useful in landscape preservation. In the higher regions, the sheep feed on rough grasses and tree sprouts; in lower areas they groom the meadows that are dotted with fruit trees. The Rhön has a yearly average temperature of 5 to 7 degrees Celsius, a yearly precipitation of 700 to 1,000 mm and it is endowed with lots of fog and wind. The Rhön sheep takes its name from the volcanic mountain where it is reared. Most likely, the Rhoenschaf existed already in the 16th century, because the oldest shepherd regulation was found in the Rhoen town of Tann, dated from the year 1548. At that time breeds as we know them did not exist yet. Those sheep had white, brown, black, even piebald plain fleeces that were either fine or coarse. Their heads where broad or narrow and came with or without horns. The origin of all plain-wool landraces was the European Zaupelschaf, a dual-coated sheep with a black or red head and narrow ears. Those rams had horns. In the 16th century shepherds had tried to unify their flocks, to improve the fleece quality by crossing the Zaupelschaf with a heavy, plain-wool Flemish sheep. Most of the old landraces ceased to exist when Spanish Merinos appeared around 1765. But the Rhoenschaf, found its niche and survival in the Hessian-Bavarian-Thuringian triangle. In the middle of the last century the Rhoenschaf population had expanded to hundreds of thousands, and their export flourished throughout Europe. This trend was reversed with the French import restrictions that were imposed to curb epidemics. Around 1950 Rhön sheeps were more than 30,000 but in 1990 they had dropped to just 800. Thanks to the action of three farmers and of the gastronomical association “Aus der Rhön für die Rhön” the current number of Rhön sheeps is around 6,000. The association helped shephers to find an important market. Already in 1984, the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz (BUND) and the Bund Naturschutz (BN) in cooperation with a small part time farm helped to develop a Rhön sheep herd and, later, to construct a new sheep pen. These initiatives together with agricultural subsidies gave new prospects to the farm. The establishment of the missing market for Rhön lamb meat was initiated by the association ‘Natur- und Lebensraum Rhön e.V.’ in raising the attention of local gastronomy for Rhön sheep dishes. The establishment of a market structure was supported by LEADER I which funded the newly created ‘Rhöner Landspezialitäten GmbH’. The local farmers united to market the sheep products, especially the meat. Chefs of the region created appealing recipes and helped in promoting a cultural heritage. An advantage of its meat is that the taste improves with the aging of the animal. Therefore, the numerous summer hikers and winter skiers should order a Rhoenschaf dish in the local restaurant or Gasthaus. Buying the wool, meat or salami directly from the source is another form of preserving a breed and a unique landscape.
Image: © Stefan Abtmeyer