The Tiny Ouessant Sheep
The Ouessant (pronounced we-sahn) sheep is said to be the world's smallest breed of sheep. Their homeland is the island of Ouessant, a small French island at the western end of the English Channel. The legend is that they are the descendants of sheep left by the conquering Vikings. Wherever they came from, the island's harsh weather and grim grazing caused them to evolve into a small, hardy sheep.
Ouessant ram looks like a mini Big Horn Sheep.
And when I say small, I mean small. Smaller than most dogs! Rams stand about 19 inches tall at the shoulder and ewes are about 17 inches. Mature weight is about 25 pounds, and lambs are typically about two pounds! It's said that lambs are so small you can fit one in your pocket.
Their small size makes them pretty much worthless for meat production. Sure, you can eat any sheep (and the Ouessant islanders do eat them), but their daintiness makes the lamb chops so small it's hardly worth the effort. In addition, they almost always have single births, and a commercial meat farmer wants his sheep to have twins or even triplets with each lambing.
So why bother? For their wool! Because of their small size they don't require much feed or space, but that little 25 pound sheep can produce a hefty three pounds of wool ... that's a lot for such a small sheep! The wool has a long outer coat with a dense, soft undercoat.
But their most striking feature is their color. Most sheep breeds are primarily white, with an occasional black sheep. But the Ouessant sheep are almost all black. Deep, dark, gorgeous black! This is the result of selective breeding by the islanders.
Married women traditionally wore black clothing in poor rural villages in much of Europe until the early 1900s. Throughout the world most shepherds preferred white sheep because only white wool could be dyed using natural dyes (chemical dyes weren't invented until the mid-1800s). Sure, the poor island women could have dyed white wool black, but why not just start with black wool to begin with! So while most shepherds butchered black lambs before they could breed and pass on their recessive trait, the islanders kept the black sheep and allowed them to breed.
A Ouessant sheep showing off
her fabulous coal black fleece.
Today the number of Ouessant sheep has dwindled. Most Ouessants are kept as pets in groups of three or four sheep, not large commercial breeding flocks, and they are considered a rare breed. But Ouessant owners insist that it is a great big pleasure raising those tiny frames!
The folks at ChiaoGoo agree that great things come in small packages! Their newest knitting needles, the "4" Twist Mini Set," is the tiniest interchangeable needle set available. The versatile 4" needle tips give you the flexibility to make a 16 inch circular needle. And like the Ouessant islanders' selective breeding, ChiaoGoo has improved this "next generation" of needle tips with a solid (not hollow!) stainless steel needle, which makes the tips and threads stronger.
Happy Knitting! ... Scout