"Woodsheep - Tweed" - a Project to maintain precious breeds Print E-mail

{mosimage} The project "Woodsheep - Tweed" is a common project of the youth of nature protection in Haslach and should be a case study about indirect measures of support for the gene-conservation, preservation and versatile utilization of endangered farm animal breeds. This study was announced at the OECD.



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In the region Muehlviertel in Upper Austria a quality production project was initiated in order to preserve valuable dry meagre pastures. On these pastures the Bohemian gentian (Gentianella Bohemica) is a typical highly endangered plant. It is adapted to poor sandy soil and does not tolerate long grass. As it quickly vanishes in intensive meadows or pastures or in fallow ground it is used as an indicator plant. These dry meagre meadows harbour up to 300 different species of butterflies and more than 200 species of grasses and herbs most of them threatened with extinction. The best means for preserving such habitats is extensive grazing. As most of the pastures are hilly and the nutrient value of the grass is poor only light hardy animals can be used. The climate in the whole region is harsh with cool summers and cold winters. Traditionally, sheep have filled this role providing wool for clothing and meat as a by-product with almost no additional work load for the farmer.

During the last 50 years agriculture in this region has been intensified and most of the original ecosystems have vanished or are much diminished. Besides land use for the extension of recreation areas and buildings, afforestation and more intensive management of meadows and fields are the main problems. Sheep husbandry was almost completely abandoned in favour of dairy and dual purpose cattle.

In 1993 a suitable breed for the project was found in the autochthonous Austrian breed wood-sheep meaning "Forest Sheep". This breed is well adapted to the region and can stand the climate with little or no shelter. The animals are rather small but very fertile with lambings all the year. They raise their lambs on grass or hay with supplements of minerals and salt and do not need any concentrates. They carry a special hairy medium wool with good technological properties for spinning and weaving. The breed is ranked as highly endangered in Austria and takes part in the Austrian Gene Conservation Program. Breeders receive subsidies for avoiding inbreeding by planned mating and genotyping their animals.

The meat of the lambs is of very high quality and finds a ready market in the region. Traditionally the wool (3 to 5 kg/year) was seen as a nuisance. Usually in Austria prices for raw wool are lower than the fee paid for shearing. After a scientific analysis of the wool in 1995 certifying the unique quality the "Naturschutzjugend Haslach" (Youth for nature protection in Haslach) tried in co-operation with the "Textilwerkstatt Haslach" (textile workshop Haslach), the wood-sheep breeders organisation and the Institute for Organic Farming and Biodiversity to create and market a high quality product from the Forest Sheep wool. As a by-product the sheep graze nature reserves.

Originally the "Forest Sheep" was kept as an addition to the cattle mainly for supplying the farmer and his family with clothing and some surplus meat in autumn when most of the young animals were slaughtered. The mixed wool has a high amount of very fine wool fibres, long kemp and even some short hair and differs from other breeds. This quality is well suited for hand spinning and weaving and was used for knitted and Loden garments. If the animals are shorn twice a year fleece weight amounts to 3 to 4 kg of raw wool.

The idea was to provide an additional income from the marketing of the wool for the farmers and to create a unique product, which is entirely manufactured in the structurally less favoured region.
The problems were
- to build awareness in farmers for high quality wool
- to collect the wool
- and to find a market for the product after the technological problems had been solved.

Most farmers keeping Forest Sheep take part in the project. The breed counts about 1300 breeding animals (male and female) now. Most of the breeders are situated in or near the Muehlviertel. Organized by the breeders organisation, farmers bring or send the dry raw wool to the textile workshop Haslach, where the wool is washed and processed (including spinning and weaving) up to the fabricated "Waldschaf Tweed". Instead of just getting a better price for the wool they have the possibility of taking back wool products and to use or market it on their own. This paid working method with direct marketing by the farmers brings a profitable price for the wool. At the same time some of the Tweed is marketed by the textile workshop in the factory shop.

The first charge of "Waldschaf Tweed" was produced in 1999 and two years later about 400 metres tweed were manufactured. It is a very light and soft tweed exclusively tanned with natural dyes. Because of the soft texture it is feasible for female clothes like skirts or blazers. In co-operation with the Upper Austrian Tailoring Association presentations and shows were made at textile fairs. Beside the marketing of the tweed in the textile workshop at Haslach breeders take part in the selling of tweed.

As a result of the first success with the high priced wood-sheep-Tweed there was a need for additional advertisement and public relations: For example, in 2002 the Forest Sheep Project was presented at the biggest agricultural fair in Austria at Wels, and within the fair programme the governor of Upper Austria got a specially made tweed jacket sponsored by the project. This presentation of the project was shown in all media and significantly increased the sales. At the same time this presentation contributed to raise public awareness for rare breeds and their benefits for preserving biodiversity of rich habitats by extensive grazing.

The main problem of the project is the small amount of available product. For one charge of Forest Sheep Tweed the wool production of two years (four shearings) is necessary. A better strategy for collecting the wool is necessary. So there is still some need to improve the interface between marketing a high quality product like tweed and the extensive agricultural production by a special breed like the wood-sheep.

On the other hand the integration and interaction with the conservation project of Bohemian gentian (Gentianella Bohemica) seems to be quite successful, as the scientific monitoring project of this endangered plant species, which is organized by the youth of the nature protection Haslach, indicates that the populations of Bohemian gentian are stabilized at the concerned pastures.

Abstract English: The present paper on market creation for biodiversity is submitted to the OECD Working Group on the Economic Aspects of Biodiversity by the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Environment and Water Management.