On a beautiful Sunday in June, a shepherd drives a flock of about a hundred sheep with his dog (of course it is a border colly) from the woods and moors towards the farm near Roermond. The shepherd whistles and points, the dog runs but meanwhile does not lose sight of the sheep for a moment. The sheep bleat incessantly.
The sheep are all Campine heathsheep. This is the breed that provides the wool from which Ecological Textiles has recently produced new yarns and a slightly fulled woven fabric. For us, this fabric is something special. The sheep are kept just a few kilometres from our office, during walks in the nearby National Nature Park Meinweg we see them grazing and when we visit the farm, we sometimes go by bike.
The farm is home to landscape management company De Wassum. Led by ecologist Sjraar van Beek, it has been grazing heaths by sheep since 1988. On the moors in the region, De Wassum's sheep have been a familiar sight for years. The animals are used to graze areas where the original heath vegetation had to give up more and more ground and was overgrown by grass.
"The Campine Heath Sheep is the breed traditionally kept in this region," says Van Beek. "It owes its name to the Campine, an area encompassing parts of Belgium and the Netherlands, an area of poor sandy soils with vast heathlands. The Campine sheep originates from those conditions. It is an animal that had to get by on a meagre diet. Campine sheep eat not only grass but also thistles, nettle, birch, rowan, wormwood. In this way, they give room again to the heathland, but also to other plants and animals that were in danger of disappearing due to the grassiness. In this way, the sheep make an important contribution to maintaining biodiversity."
Anyone living in the area can see with their own eyes that, partly due to the efforts of sheep, the heaths bloom profusely every late summer, a huge difference with, say, 20 years ago.
Since typical wool sheep, which were kept specifically for their wool, did not yet exist in the Middle Ages, we must imagine the sheep of that time as all-rounders. Maybe a bit like our heath sheep.
Since the late Middle Ages, there has been an obsession with the fineness of wool. This is understandable because many products made of wool were worn directly on the skin, and the finer the wool is the less it stings. This eventually led to the success of merino wool in particular but also (partly due to clever marketing by merino farmers) to the devaluation of other wools.
Sheep farmer Van Beek tries to improve the quality of his Campine wool through a targeted selection and breeding policy and by constantly examining the micronage of his sheep's wool.
It is, however, clear that Campine wool will never become merino wool. But... so what? Numerous products can still be made from the slightly coarser types, including clothing. It may even be advisable to use slightly coarser wool types for these applications. Think coats, jackets, jumpers, vests, hats, slippers, etc. In the nineteenth century, the Campine Heath sheep in particular was still known for its good wool quality, as evidenced by the higher amounts paid for it on the market.
In the Campine with its poor sandy soils, the heath sheep was always also important as a manure supplier. However, that changed with the invention of artificial fertilisers, which eventually led to the sheep being threatened with extinction in the 1960s. Several actions by individuals who joined together to form an association have since increased the number of sheep again. Many of them are used for grazing the moors.
How local is local? The sheep are very local, the industrial facilities aren't. It was impossible to produce the fabrics and yarn industrially as well as locally, for the simple reason that there are no longer any factories in the Netherlands for processing wool. We therefore had to rely on production facilities in Belgium and Germany for washing, spinning and weaving. The greatest distance is about 700 km.