UK’s first showcase and sale for rare Swiss sheep

Jenni McAllister and Raymond Irvine
Jenni McAllister and Raymond Irvine

The UK’s first ever show and sale dedicated to the Swiss Valais Blacknose Sheep will take place on 20th August at Harrison and Hetherington’s UK Borderway Mart in Carlisle.

The Blacknose Beauties National Show and Sale will showcase the breed and educate farmers about the qualities and standards it is judged against.

The Valais Blacknose is an incredibly rare breed, with only 12,000 registered in their native country. The purpose of this show and sale is to provide UK breeders with the opportunity to have their stock officially graded and judged by professional Swiss Valais judges and it is expected that 150 sheep will be shown. Open to the public, it is also platform to highlight this beautiful breed of sheep to a wider audience and to hold and to host the UK’s first official auction.

In the show, there are 13 classes in total with winners being presented with a traditional Swiss bell. The overall supreme champion being presented with the Tomintoul Single Malt Scotch Whisky Trophy kindly donated by Tomintoul Distillery, in the highlands of Scotland.

With a seven year ban on imports from Switzerland (beginning in December 2014), and growing demand for people wanting to start their own flock these sheep are very valuable.

Being a new breed in the UK the Valais Blacknose Sheep Society (VBSSUK) feel it is vital to maintain the same standards the Valais are held to in their home country. Therefore they are using this event as an educational tool for farmers, showing them the Swiss standards and providing information on getting the most from their flock.

The founders of the VBSSUK (Jamie Wood, Jenni McAllister and Raymond Irvine) are certain that their first British show will be a milestone event, for the both the breed and the VBSSUK.

Jenni comments: “We have received tremendous support and I would like to thank all of the Sponsors and supporters of our first event. I would also like to thank the members of the society, whom without this event would not be possible. The sheep will be presented and judged in traditional Swiss Style, with a panel of judges imported from Switzerland itself, together with a Traditional Swiss grading system.

“The use of the Swiss judging system is designed to ensure that we maintain the high standards of the breed in Britain. The judges will provide farmers with information and encouragement to reach the levels expected by their Swiss counterparts.”

The UK Valais Blacknose Sheep Society was formed by Jenni McAllister, Raymond Irvine and Jamie Wood in January 2015 to protect and promote the breed here in the United Kingdom. The Society has gone from strength to strength, now representing 42 members in total, with the number of Valais sheep in the UK on the increase.

The ten highly qualified judges will consist of the President and Vice President of the Swiss Valais Blacknose Sheep Society together with 8 of their fellow countrymen. The very technical judging process will be precise, with points allocated into each of the three categories; appearance, body and wool. These categories are broken down into; markings and colour, head and neck, horns, chest, shoulder and withers, back and loins, pelvis, abdomen and leg, limbs and foundation and corridoor.

The Society specifically chose Borderway Mart because it is the central point for the whole of the UK to attract farmers, small holders, and general fans of the breed. To date entrants are travelling from across the UK to attend, from the Highlands to the south of England.

The breed, described as the cutest sheep in the world by the Daily Mail, acquired their media reputation because of their spiral twisted horns and the unique black markings on their faces and legs. These, combined with their curly white fringes make them uniquely photogenic, attracting a long list of admirers.

The story of the Valais Blacknose goes back to the 15th Century, and the Valais Region of Switzerland. These stocky and dependable sheep owe their essential character to the need to survive in wild mountainous terrain. A sturdy breed, they graze easily on the steepest, stoniest slopes, and their large size means they provided their owners with meat as well as wool.

Astonishingly, they only became a registered breed in 1962, and they now enjoy the glamour of an annual best-of-breed beauty contest in Visp, the capital of Valais - the region that gives them their name. As befits a creature with such special qualities and universal appeal, the contest is called ‘Miss Visp’, and is held every year. All dressed in traditional Swiss copper bells, in the region of 400 ewes are presented for inspection. Held in a large school hall, the sheep are gathered at one end and at the other is a social area where thousands of admirers are known to collect. This pinnacle event takes place over a weekend in February and is an unmissable occasion for any Valais Blacknose lover.

Whether Valais Blacknose sheep end up as an alternative farmer’s four legged friend, or another breed of sheep to add to the huge following of rare breed sheep in the UK, the Valais is destined to be a popular sight for some time to come.

For Raymond Irvine and Jenni McAllister it all started with a photo on the internet; woolly, cute and unique. Intrigued by its obvious character and plain old love at first sight, they had to find out more about how they could bring them to Scotland.

Initially, neither Raymond nor Jenni appreciated how long and complex the process would be. Frequently hitting red tape upon red tape, they frequently talked of giving up as it seemed this was something unachievable.

Finally, Raymond and Jenni decided their last hope was to travel to Switzerland and meet the breeders themselves. In 2014, they attended one of the biggest annual shows and visited many different breeders where they selected 13 sheep to purchase, all from different bloodlines. Over the first hurdle, the biggest challenge was to get them home to Scotland.

After a long and stressful process, the loading date finally arrived. Unable to relax until their sheep had successfully made it through UK customs, Raymond and Jenni were delighted when they were unloaded and settled in to their new home.

The first to import Valais Blacknose sheep into Scotland, directly from Switzerland, the pair decided to import more sheep when it was announced that the export would be closed down later in the year. Second time round the process was much quicker, but once again, didn’t present itself stress free.

Embryonic transfer was carried out on a number of sheep to further increase the size of the flock more quickly. Raymond and Jenni now run a flock of 80 Valais Blacknose sheep and have received a phenomenal response from across the globe. As well as daily messages, they regularly welcome visitors from countries afar who want to meet the sheep.

Raymond said: “From our first sighting we knew we had to have some. Now two years down the line we have met so many wonderful people, and feel very lucky that we have been able to achieve what we have. We hope you enjoy meeting the Valais Blacknose sheep and invite you to follow the flock.”