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Sheep have been kept in Drenthe since 4000 BCE. That makes the Drenthe Heath sheep the oldest breed of sheep on the mainland of Western Europe. What makes this breed so special, is that it's able to survive on barren heathlands. Farmers in Drenthe used the sheep's dung as fertiliser for their fields. Without the Drenthe Heath sheep, agriculture in Drenthe would have been impossible.
Long ago large herds of sheep roamed the Drenthe heathland and fields led by a shepherd and his dogs. At night the sheep would be kept in a sheep pen or on the 'brink', the communal field in the middle of a village. From the 17th and 18th century onward, sheep were kept at the farms. A deep litter shed was constructed near the farms, in which the sheep would leave their manure. It was mixed with sods and then used to fertilise the fields of the 'es'. During this period, many hay barns were built near the farms to ensure that the sheep had enough to eat in winter.
The 'New Type'
In the early 20th century, with the introduction of chemical fertiliser, the keeping of sheep to produce fertiliser became obsolete. As the Drenthe Heath sheep do not produce much milk, this ancient sheep breed was slowly replaced by the Schoonebeek Heath sheep. A cross between these two breeds lead to a new Drenthe sheep breed. It is referred to as the 'Drenthe Heath sheep of the New Type'.
Cultural and Historical Importance
Many of the sheep you see in Drenthe today are of the new type. But there are still sheep of the old type as well. They are mostly kept because of their cultural and historical significance and still graze the heathlands. You can distinguish the old type by its lean build, long woolly tail reaching past the ankles, a coat of rough, lanky wool, dull hair on the head and legs, and a straight nose. The newer type has a more crooked nose and smaller horns.
Some of the places where you can find sheep herds are National Park Dwingelderveld with sheep pens just outside Ruinen and Dwingeloo. A large herd of Drenthe Heath sheep owned by the Stichting Holtinger Schaapskudde roams the Holtingerveld between Havelte and Uffelte. Another herd can be found in the Bargerveen. The largest herd of Drenthe Heath sheep can be seen in Sellingen Bossen in Groningen.