In order to successfully renaturate bog areas the areas in question must be re-wet and cleared of scrub and small trees. This process is meant to keep unused moor areas open, either to maintain as much bio-diversity as possible or to support and encourage plants that require sunlight to thrive. These plants, like peat moss, also hinder water from evaporating from bogs.
Clearance can be done in three principal ways, by hand or machine or it can be done by sheep that keep down the young saplings and re-growing scrub. In Esterwegen the local Bentheim sheep are used for this purpose. The largest heath sheep in Germany was bred about 200 years ago and stems from a cross between German and Dutch country and heath sheep that were being kept on both sides of the border. At the same time as the Bentheimer country sheep was being bred, the ”Schoonebeeker sheep” was being bred on the Dutch side. Both breeds are closely related and for a long time were genetically identical sister breeds. External markings on the Bentheimer country sheep are black or brown spots on the eyes, on the ears and sometimes on the legs, as well as their long tail. These animals have no horns and a slender head. Their wool is pure white.
Bentheim country sheep played and play an important role both in the development of historic heath landscapes but also today with respect to caring for the landscape. Once there were 25,000 Bentheim sheep that dotted the countryside but about 40 years ago these specialised sheep almost became extinct. In 1970 three breeding operations in the Emsland had 50 animals between them. Since then things have gotten better. Although they are still considered endangered there are more than 2,300 animals for breeding purposes and 10,000 working animals. Largely they are located in the Weser-Ems-Region and in Lower Saxony but also Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and North Rheine – Westphalia.iedersachsen, aber auch Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern und Nordrhein-Westfalen.
In its place of origin, the county of Bentheim - the Emsland breeders and also public bodies now look after this domestic animal. Noteworthy examples include the Nordhorn Zoo and the Emsland Moormuseum in Geeste-Groß Hesepe.
An additional countermeasure is to keep this breed on former bog areas. Their hard hooves and descent from heath sheep make the Bentheim sheep robust and sturdy in the face of the inhospitable conditions in the moors. The wet conditions and the meagre food are no problem for this breed and at the same time these animals take over the work of clearing the scrub from the moors and clearing the way for its future.
In 2011, Tobias Böckermann, editor of the, “Neuen Osnabrücker Zeitung“, wrote a 120 page book ”The Bentheim Sheep. History and Future of an old Breed of Farm Animal.” He is co-founder and chairman of the “Land Unter” association and with them has been breeding Bentheim sheep since 1994.
His book is an excellent basis for an expert examination of the Bentheim sheep. The author not only describes the history of this breed and its qualities but portraits 11 breeders and institutions that advocate on behalf of the Bentheim sheep. In this way, Böckermann successfully paints a multi-facetted and complex picture of the cultural value of the Bentheimer sheep.
Tobias Böckermann, Das Bentheimer Landschaf, Emsländische Landschaft e.V. (Hrsg.), ISBN 978-3-925034-45-9, Preis 14,60 €