Visiting Fårö Island, home to Gutefår (Gute sheep), is like stepping back in history. Undeveloped by man, this northern most tip of Gotland, Sweden remains much as it was centuries ago. The island’s landscape, molded by time, weather, and beast alone, tells its story. Its rocky coast has been sculpted over centuries by wind and ocean, leaving behind limestone formations. Rauks and towering sea stacks of nearly 30 feet tall limestone pillars, reach for the skies, with the ocean water relentlessly breaking over them. Once home to power hungry Vikings, who launched their ships from its coastline, Fårö now seems rather bucolic with cattle grates, thatched roofed barns, and the occasional farmstead. Visitors will not find stores, banks, hotels, or resorts on this pristine island, just miles of undisturbed beaches. Today, many islanders work on the mainland of Gotland but the countless sheep grazing reveal one of the island’s main sources of livelihood- sheep.
With only 600 year-round inhabitants on Fårö, sheep may very well out number people. Here, on this tiny island situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea, the Gute (Gutefår), sheep first originated. This hardy landrace breed of sheep has been formed over time by its natural surroundings, grazing up to the water’s edge on scrubby juniper, pine, and wild thyme. Legends say that Viking traders first introduced sheep to Fårö and Gotland. Both Gutefår rams and ewes have horns which majestically curl about their clean faces. Their legs and bellies are free from wool, and faces have that characteristic white nose and white circles around their eyes.
Many of the modern European short-tailed breeds of sheep descended from the Gutefår. I went to Gotland in search of one of these descendants, the modern day Gotland or “Pälsfår”. While visiting Gotland, one shepherd told us that the Gotland breed as we know it today, started “right down the road at a neighboring farm”. He explained that shepherds wanted a breed of sheep with no horns, and one with a nicer fleece. He said that many years ago, a man from a neighboring farm saw a ram on the train headed for slaughter. This man liked the looks of the ram and pulled him off the train and bought him right there. He used this ram to cross breed to his Gute sheep and began selecting for polled sheep and the characteristic curly gray fleeces of the modern Gotland sheep. Today, Swedish shepherds raise the Gotland sheep for their pelts, selling them throughout Europe.
Through this selective breeding as well as the introduction of merino sheep in the 1700’s, the Gute sheep nearly became extinct in Gotland. Concerned farmers formed an association whose main goal was to protect and preserve this ancient primitive breed. Through the association, a Gutefår Breeding Registry was established, and a gene pool bank was formed in 2008 to protect this unique breed.
This magical place, Fårö, and all its unkempt wildness, now holds a place in my heart. One day, I will return, and I will find flocks of Gutefår who are the ancestors of my little flock of Gotland sheep here in the United States.
Thank you to the following people and resources in writing this post:
Gutefår photo from North SheD.
My new friend and shepherd to “one of the worlds largest flocks of purebred Gotland sheep”, Dan, of Gotland Island
Gutefår: The Bronze Age Sheep of Gotland by Judith MacKenzie McCuin
Föreningen Gutefåret – The association dedicated to preserving Gutefår.