Finnsheep: Sheep for all Economic Seasons
by Grace Hatton of Hawley, PA
photos by Elizabeth Kinne
Sheep were one of the first animals domesticated. They were so important to humans that in Northern Europe they often lived in barns over the winter and even lambed in barns so they would be protected from predators.
Humans lived in one end of the long farm building and livestock in the other. Unlike their close relatives, Shetland and Icelandic sheep, that ranged outside year round, free of any predators, Finnsheep were always in closer proximity to humans. This may be one explanation for their docility and apparent affinity for people.
In the last century in Finland, Finnsheep were selected with regard for the quality of their wool and the tendency towards a double coat similar to the Icelandic sheep that have almost completely disappeared.
A shepherd with Finnsheep can cope with economic adversity or weather related feed supply shortages without long term effects. Finnsheep were bred to take advantage of good years as well as bad ones. If the hay was in short supply, ewes would be sold or slaughtered to bring their numbers down to match the hay available. Winter lasts a long time in Finland. Hay needs to last a long time, too.
The average flock in Finland in the 70’s when they were first imported into the US, was around five or fewer ewes. Some Finnish shepherds lambed their ewes twice a year. Ewes lambing twice a year need to be on a higher plane of nutrition most of the year, but in return there should be five to seven lambs per ewe.
Once a year lambing will result in three, four or more lambs per ewe, enough lambs to keep back for breeding to expand the flock if necessary as well as some to sell.
Meat from Finn lambs is more tender than average and the meat to bone ratio is more favorable than many other breeds. Finn lambs in the 60 – 90 pound live weight range are popular in the ethnic market in the USA.
Finnsheep in the USA began with seven rams and three ewes in the early 1970’s. They were selected from about 200 Finnsheep previously imported into Canada.
They were crossed with other sheep and originally any sheep with at least 15/16ths Finnsheep blood could be registered. The upgrading program ended in 1991. Since then there have been importations of Finnsheep semen from Finland and artificial insemination has expanded the Finnsheep gene pool in the United States.
Recently some Finnsheep breeders have been allowing different wool colors to emerge from the uniform whiteness long favored in all sheep.
Genetically all sheep are either black or, rarely, brown. White is a pattern genetically and not considered to be inherited like the colors black and brown. The white pattern is dominant over colors and masks them.
Some black sheep have wool that fades resulting in a sheep with black face and legs, but chocolate colored tips on their fleeces. Some black sheep fade to gray — black as lambs, but by the time they are two years old, become grizzled. Others start off black, but sometime during their first few months of life, their wool abruptly turns grey so the staple is lighter colored half way down.
Brown sheep also vary according to what is believed to be a modifier gene. If the gene is present, the sheep will be a pale fawn color.
Then there are other genetic traits that result in white markings on the face and legs, spotting that mimics a Holstein cow or even small all-over spots, similar to a Dalmatian dog.
Still other descriptively named variations exist such as badger-faced and Mouflon, which resembles the wild sheep, ancestral to modern sheep.
While she was in the vanguard of owning crossbred Finnsheep in the late 1970’s — only a few short years after they came to this country — changes in her life forced Elizabeth Kinne to give them up in 1982. But the feisty red-head knew that if she had a chance to have sheep again, they would be pure-bred Finnsheep.
Twelve years later everything had fallen into place and she had a 38 acre hill-top farm bordering a 5,000 acre state forest where she now lives, south of De Ruyter, NY. She bought the sheep that were the beginnings of Stillmeadow Finnsheep — eight white ewes from New York breeder, Brian Magee, and a charcoal grey ram, Cheningo, from Clifford Hatch of Massachusetts. Cheningo had a black patch around one eye and spots on his belly. Both his sire and dam were white.
Elizabeth was intrigued by the idea of spotted or piebald sheep. Several years later she bought a ram with black and white Holstein-type spots from another Massachusetts breeder, Ginger Sokol, that was distantly related to Cheningo. When that ram was used on Cheningo daughters about 30% of the lambs were spotted.
There were spotted lambs in the mega-litter of seven Elizabeth’s Snobird had in 2001.
There have been several instances of Finnsheep dropping seven lambs in the USA, but the all time record is still in Finland where a ewe had nine lambs. Usually Finnsheep have three or four lambs.
Elizabeth has her 28 acres of pasture bush hogged annually. A 30’ x 60’ Harnois greenhouse barn houses her sheep over the winter and shelters them during lambing. Elizabeth says that even in 2000 when she had 25 ewes and their 75 lambs in the facility, there were no problems with ventilation. A skid steer loader is used for barn cleaning and snow removal around the place, but that is it as far as farm equipment goes.
More recently Elizabeth has been promoting her badger-faced Finnsheep. Badger-faced sheep have dark bellies and distinctive dark markings over the eyes.
A long time handspinner and weaver, Elizabeth prefers to only spin Finnsheep wool on the three spinning wheels her father made for her plus her two antique Saxony wheels. When it comes to weaving, it is the same story — her favorite is Finnsheep yarn. She is currently weaving on a LeClerc 4 harness 36″ wide counterbalanced floor loom and also has a 60″ wide 8 harness floor loom made by her father in 1978. More recently she has been doing felt making — again with her beloved Finnsheep wool.
In contrast to long-time Finnsheep breeder, Elizabeth Kinne, Heidi Trimbur just got started with Finnsheep. Heidi had been involved in the equine industry for over 30 years, starting with sport horses, evolving into the breeding of colored sport horses and eventually ending up in the Thoroughbred breeding and racing industry. As the breeding and foaling end of the business grew, she and her husband, Eric, required more land and hence the purchase of their 20 acre Alburtis, PA property.
Eventually keeping up with the amount of work horses require got to be too much. The energetic young racing bloodstock are hard on the human body so they decided that it was time to make a change. Two and a half years ago they began researching ideas of what to do with the farm when the racehorses, broodmares and foals were all gone.
“We spent almost a year visiting different sheep farms, learning about the industries served by sheep breeders, what was and was not profitable and what breeders had to say about different breeds of sheep they had raised and probing into markets and potential markets to discover what buyers were looking for and what they were willing to pay to acquire the product. We identified what the top of the market was looking for and kept their needs in mind when selecting our breed of sheep! We also established our own criteria based on what we felt our land was most suitable for and our own personal interests.”
Luckily they didn’t need to do much in the way of barn modification and they had already fenced their property for the horses. The fields were set up for cross grazing and full rotation. They make their own hay anyway so there was nothing to change there either. As a plus, the reproductive characteristics of Finn ewes and their earlier maturity rates get a program up and running quicker than other breeds.
According to Heidi, “Temperament… was a biggie, as I had just spent over 25 years breeding horses — I had absolutely no interest in any breed that would be rude, obnoxious or flighty!”
Heidi searched for animals with suitable characteristics for a quality breeding program. Conformation, temperament and wool quality are her main selection criteria. Then came wool quality, versatility and the range of natural colors in the wool. This goes back to market penetration. She says, “White wool is fabulous because you can dye it any color you want, but we have a huge ‘natural, environmentally-green-minded’ market in our area so varied colors give us more marketability. Finn wool characteristics make it extremely versatile and it can be used with confidence for a larger variety of projects than most other wools. Our fleeces for 2009 are sold out!”
Whenever hand-spinners are asked what their favorite types of fleeces to spin are, Finnsheep always comes up as one of the popular ones. The wool is known for its softness, silky hand and high luster. The American Wool Council ranks it in the finer end of the medium wool breeds. Finnsheep fleeces are hard to find since fewer than 350 Finnsheep were registered in the past year.
Fancy Finnsheep fleeces sell for $10 or more per pound. Some breeders coat their fleeces, but the primary issue affecting hand spinner fleece sales is attention to detail. That means no second cuts or belly wool or matted areas. Hand-spinners don’t want to be picking hay bits out of the wool.
Finn roving sells for $18 per pound and up. Roving is wool that has been washed, carded, sometimes dyed and put up in strips ready for spinning. There are many commercial wool processors out there, but processing can be done in the home.
Finn wool also felts easily making it popular with felters.
Finn wool doesn’t have as much lanolin in it as some breeds so loss on washing is closer to 35% compared to some wool breeds where weight of lanolin can be up to 50%. Finnsheep wool grows quickly so they can be shorn twice a year.
Another consideration for the Trimburs was health and ease of care. Heidi says, “Finnsheep, as a breed, won this one without contest! They are smaller, super-friendly, have no horns to worry about and no tails to dock. They are hardy, thrive on good nutrition and grow a gorgeous fleece. I love to walk out in the pastures with them. They all come running over to say hello and some of our rams love to jump on our golf cart and “go for a ride” – it is hilarious! Finns are extremely personable and they are an ideal fit for today’s smaller farms and superb for family operation, they are also wonderful for children and as family pets. We absolutely love the breed! They are a joy to work with, a pleasure to have on the farm, and our customers can’t get enough of them and/or their wool!”
Finnsheep Facts at a Glance:
- originated in Finland
- imported into the USA in early 1970’s
- hornless, short-tailed, single coated
- wool highly favored by handspinners
- colored sheep can be registered
- early maturity
- plenty of vigorous lambs – averaging 3 or 4
- used in crossbreeding to increase lambing percentages
- lambs marketed to the ethnic market (60-90 lbs)
- docile and friendly
American Finnsheep Breeders’ Association
5883 Randall Hill Rd
De Ruyter, New York 13052
Trimbur Finnsheep Organics
58 Bitting Road
Alburtis, PA 18011
An online email list for breeders of all kinds of sheep interested in color genetics on yahoogroups.com
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Freelance writer, Grace Hatton, has raised Finnsheep since 1986. She is a hand-spinner, knitter and huge fan of Finnsheep wool. One of her Finn ewes gave birth to quints in the spring and quints in the fall of the same year. Another Finn ewe in her flock had 41 live lambs by her tenth birthday. Grace is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Finnsheep Breeders’ Association.