The Norwegian Villsau (“wild sheep”) or Gammel Norsk Sau, is one of the most ancient sheep breeds still in existence in northern Europe. These small and hardy animals have adapted to living in exposed coastal areas all year round, using the landscape’s resources to find food and shelter. Pastures from uncultivated, semi-natural field vegetation such as heathlands, unfertilized grasslands, and shrubs provide the major part of their fodder.
The animals are short-tailed with a double coat of fleece that can appear in any of the colors of sheep wool due to the genetic disposition of the breed. The males, as well as many of the females, have horns.
The meat of this breed is known for its high quality and flavor. This is partly due to a different distribution of body fat compared to standard sheep breeds, with greater fat deposits around the viscera and less around the muscles. Fat is distributed in a very fine marbled pattern between muscle fibers, increasing the tenderness of the mutton. The wild and varied diet of these sheep (heather, shrubs, herbs, natural grass pastures and seaweed) also contributes to the mutton’s unique flavor.
The lamb is used to prepare traditional dishes such as pinnekjøtt (smoked ribs) and fenalår (smoked leg), while the wool is used to weave waterproof blankets and the skin is employed in making carpets and rugs.
During the 19th century, new sheep breeds were imported from abroad that were bigger and their wool better suited to industrial treatment. Most farmers switched to raising these modern breeds, with little attention paid to the loss in taste of the meat. A systematic rescue action was organized during the 1950s when Norsk Villsaulag BA, the association of Villsau sheep breeders, was founded. Today it boasts 400 members along the coastal counties west of Norway.
Although the breed itself is no longer facing extinction, the traditional method of rearing these animals is under strong economic pressure from abattoirs, as they pay more for bigger lambs, compared to the very marginal economic output yielded by this breed. Consequently, many breeders are considering abondoning these techniques.
One of the main challenges that breeders have to face regards the conventional EU- ROP rating system to classify carcasses, that Norway has also adopted. Based mainly on a quantitative approach (the bigger and fatter the carcass, the better the score), the system heavy penalizes free range native breeds. Since good ratings mean better returns, many farmers have started to feed their lambs concentrate and to crossbreed them with heavy-carcass sheep.
Western and Northern coasts of Norway
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