Native sheep of Estonia

Estonian native sheep owned by Imbi and Taavi Jäetma –

Estonia is home to a variety of sheep breeds, but some have undergone genetic testing that has shown that they are closely related to sheep that have been in this area for up to 3000 years (Rannamäe et al, 2016). Overall, the old sheep in Estonia are referred to as maalammas, which is commonly translated as “native sheep.” “Maa” means land, but it can also mean the countryside, and it is often used to signify that something is from the Estonian countryside, which also can sometimes have a connotation of being ordinary and typical of rural life. There are different ideas about the Estonian native sheep. For those who see it as a breed, this is a sort of landrace sheep that has distinctive traits and that are roughly organized into regional variants according to genotype and physical characteristics. For others, “maalammas” can simply refer to the sort of mixed-breed sheep that happen to be out in the countryside. After extensive genetic testing, one strain of the native sheep was given official recognition in 2016 as a separate breed, and they are known as the Kihnu maalammas, or the Kihnu Island native sheep. The other regional varieties and the Estonian native sheep as a general grouping, are not officially recognized as a breed.

This can seem a bit esoteric, but recognition can make a huge difference in the future for farmers, communities, and groups of animals. An officially recognized breed often has some sort of organization or breed society behind it that can advocate for conservation, keep breeding records, provide accurate population numbers, and apply for financial support and other measures from government bodies and NGOs. It also has an advantage in creating a greater sense of legitimacy in local communities, and this can be a positive force for livestock conservation. A farmer who might otherwise switch to an “improved” (high-yield) commercial sheep breed for meat production might hold onto a flock of heritage sheep if they are publicly represented as important to local farming traditions, conservation grazing, etc.

Kihnu native sheep owned by Anneli Ärmpalu-Idvand

I’m not sure what the future holds for Estonian native sheep. Breed recognition is a subjective process that depends on regulators and advocates alongside voluntary groups and researchers who supply cultural and scientific evidence for or against official recognition. If they are recognized as a breed, it might be as one larger group with sub-types, or it could be through recognizing each local variety as a separate breed. It is also possible that the Kihnu sheep will continue to be the only official native sheep in Estonia. No matter what happens, these “country sheep” are an important part of Estonian rural cultural landscapes, and their role in conservation grazing is currently a subject of scientific research.

Knitted goods from Estonian native sheep wool blended with livestock guardian dog fiber –

In my research, I’m interested in how people determine what makes a breed a breed and how this intersects with their relationships with the land and with craft traditions. Estonia has an incredibly rich textile craft heritage, and wool is key to a large portion of it. So far, I have been talking to farmers who raise different sheep breeds, taking classes in Estonian textile crafts, and experimenting with different types of local wool to better understand their properties and how they work in different applications. The variety of fiber types and colors makes these sheep enticing for craftspeople, and I have found that it is they produce excellent wool for spinning, felting, and knitting. Its properties are similar to those of other Northern European Short-Tailed sheep breeds. I am currently working on a large spinning project that I hope will result in a large traditional wrap, or sõba, woven in natural sheep colors and hopefully completed this winter. As I work on these projects, I’ll post detailed notes and photographs, and perhaps some readers will feel inspired to start their own projects.

Happy crafting!


Estonian native sheep

Kihnu native sheep breeders association

Article Source: Three Thousand Years of Continuity in the Maternal Lineages of Ancient Sheep (Ovis aries) in Estonia 
Rannamäe E, Lõugas L, Speller CF, Valk H, Maldre L, et al. (2016) Three Thousand Years of Continuity in the Maternal Lineages of Ancient Sheep (Ovis aries) in Estonia. PLOS ONE 11(10): e0163676.

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