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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Come to rescue The Rolling Sheep

Hiking needs careful preparation, including personal safety. What do you put in your First Aid Kit? Do you possess basic first aid skills to manage an accident? Unless you go wondering on your own on the Wadden Sea mudflats, being on the Frisia Coast Trail help is never far away. Therefore, provided you have a swim certificate and the occasional wolf in sheep's clothing, health risks on the trail will be limited to blisters, twisted ankles, and upset stomachs after consuming too much dairy. But, there are creatures who might regularly need your immediate rescuing skills, namely rolled-over sheep. This post provides you with the right rescue instructions. And, sheep you will encounter along this trail. In overwhelming numbers. Try not to count them, because that would pose another safety risk.

Before providing the instructions how to rescue rolled-over sheep, first some basic knowledge about these animals you will encounter on the trail. You owe a lot more to them than you might think.

Sheep have been key in human civilization. Worldwide there are about a thousand different breeds. Also, the wider North Sea area is home to sheep husbandry since the earliest of times. Centuries, maybe millennia even, before the Romans arrived. Sheep prosper on the salty fringes of the southern coast of the North Sea. Precisely the area where the Frisia Coast Trail follows its route. On top of that, local coastal varieties are insensitive to weather conditions on the barren, flat lands. Heavy rains, strong winds, freezing cold, are nothing but imagery emotions to sheep. Sheep stand it all. For days on end. In fact, it is a well-known secret sheep are extra-terrestrial. Just look at their eyes.

Sheep thrive in the wider North Sea area because of the wet climate making the extensive grass pastures, which is the food of sheep, to stay green and grow longer than elsewhere. Sheep need loads of grass, and graze for about eight hours daily. Then they search for a spot to sit and start chewing the cud, up to fifty times. If they would have considered going to college, sheep simply would not have the time for it.

In the past, because of the vastness of pastures needed to feed sheep, sheep literally had to be sulla strada, on the road. Moving from one pasture to another. This was the work of shepherds and their dogs. The coastal area from Flanders to Denmark provides an infinite supply of grass-covered dikes, polders ’embanked land’, and tidal marshlands. So-called schaapsdriften ‘sheep drives’ were dikes and roadsides along which sheep graze. Shepherds or drovers could make a living from the Early Middle Ages until more or less the eighteenth century, although few traditional shepherds were still active in the Zwin region in Flanders until just after the Second World War. Today, dikes and adjacent roads are partitioned with fences and cattle grids, and sheep are being moved from one section to another and back again. You will be climbing many, many of those dike fences when hiking the Frisia Coast Trail.

Different dogs were used to herd the sheep, like the Vlaamse koehond or Bouvier des Flandres (which is a cross between the Irish Wolfhound, the Belgian Mastiff and a variety of the Belgian Shepherd, namely the Laekense herder), the Belgische herder or Belgian Sheepdog, the Hollandse herder or Dutch Shepherd, the Duitse herder or German Shepherd, the Schapendoes or Dutch Sheepdog, although more inland, and, of course, the famous Border Collie can be spotted here too (see short movie above).


Sheep, a power base throughout the Middle Ages - The Speaker of the House of Lords sits on a red coloured sack of wool, called the Woolsack. It contains samples of wool from all over the kingdom and is a testimony of the importance of wool for Britain. Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries especially, enormous amounts money were earned with wool production. Wool had become the primary source of wealth by the end of the twelfth century (Chamson 2014). Ecclesia, foemina, lana ‘churches, women, wool’, were the three miracles of England according to bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656). Therefore, it is not exaggerated to say that Great Britain was built on wool.

The statesman shears the sheep; the politician skins them (Austin O’Malley, 1858-1932)

But the demand for wool which Britain fulfilled came from Flanders where wool was needed to produce the famous Flemish broadcloth. From 1100, Flanders started importing wool from Britain, because their own -already massive- production of wool, was no longer sufficient. An interdependence between Flanders and England on wool, also called the 'Flemish connection'. England exported wool to Flanders, and Flanders exported broadcloth to England.

Already before the year 1000, the counts of Flanders invested in sheep husbandry. Sheep dwelled on the tidal marshlands of Flanders and Frisia, already from the start of the Early Middle Ages. Due to embanking marshlands, more and more land became available for sheep farming, and thus generating more wool. All this wool and the production of broadcloth became a major source of income for the Flemish counts. Enabling them to sustain militia or hire armies (De Maesschalck 2012). Wool production was at the basis of the rise of the cities of Flanders, like Ieper, Ghent and notably Bruges with its network of port towns in the Zwin area.

Before region Flanders built its power on wool during the High Middle Ages, the Frisians did during the Early Middle Ages. The Frisians produced the valued broadcloth known as pallia Fresonica 'Frisian cloth'. A textile valued by Charlemagne (747-814) himself. Read our blog post Haute couture from the salt marshes.


The multi-functionality of sheep made them successful in the history of mankind. It provides meat, milk, leather, lanolin, and wool. Along the coasts of Flanders, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, the fleecy animals have another, bonus function. Namely, maintaining dikes and cultivate tidal marshlands. Grazing sheep herds create a solid grass surface, and the continuous tramping ensures the surface of dikes and salt marshes to become solid and compact as well. This sheep trampling is also called Trippelwalze (Siegmüller 2022). Assisting the dike constructors, and the reason for its nickname in Germany, Deichschwein ‘dike hog’. Historically, the humid North Sea region is ideal and famous for its wool production. Think of the pallia Fresonica ‘Frisian cloth’ in the Early Middle Ages, the Flemish laken ‘cloth’ in the High Middle Ages, and the English and Scottish tweed to this very day. Read our post Haute Couture from the Salt Marshes, to learn more about the long-standing wool production in the humid North Sea region.

Of course, with the introduction of cotton and later cheap synthetic fibers, but also mechanical lawn mowers, and the sorry fact mutton is not really part of the Dutch, Flemish, and German diet, sheep had to give up their prominent position in society. On the other side of the English Channel, however, people still love their little lambchops. It is unfortunate for the Continentals, because meat of lambs living in the salty environment is valued for its taste: Salzlamm ‘salty lamb’. So too is its cheese, by the way. In Germany known as Frische Friese ‘fresh Frisian’. Do, with Frische Friese, focus your thoughts on dairy, not on humanoids. On Wadden Sea island Texel, excellent sheep cheese is produced too; Echte Texelse.

Nevertheless, when hiking on the endless river and sea dikes along the trail, sheep are a very common sight. In Flanders there are about 150,000 sheep which is a low number in European context. In the Netherlands about 550,000. In Denmark about 140,000. In Germany about 2,5 million. Within Germany, in Kreis Nordfriesland, there about 150,000 sheep, which almost equals the number of inhabitants. Anyway, with 3,4 million in these four countries that the trail passes through, sheep can last for a while.

Several categories can be distinguished among the many varieties.

coast or interior

A first distinction can be made based on where the beasts dwell. In north-western Europe, this is the difference between grassland sheep on the one hand, and heather or moorland sheep on the other.

Grassland sheep are relevant when walking the trail and known in Dutch as kustweide- en polderschapen ‘coastal-meadow and polder sheep’. Varieties belonging to the coastal-meadow sheep are the Flandrine or the Vlaming from Flanders, the Vlaams Kuddeschaap 'Flemish flock-sheep' from region Waasland in Flanders too, the Fries-Zeeuwse melkschaap ‘Frisian-Zeelandic milk sheep’ from provinces Friesland and Zeeland, and the Ostfriesisches Milchshaf ‘East-Frisian milk sheep’ from region Ostfriesland in Germany. Province Groningen had its own breed too but is now extinct. These varieties are specialized in milk yield and produce a very fat and nutritious milk. The Ostfriesisches Milchschaf is considered the world's highest producing dairy sheep.

Heather and moor sheep varieties often are on the verge of extinction because their habitats are too. The Drents Heideschaap or Drent Heath sheep is such a breed, and also said to be the oldest surviving breed of sheep in Europe. It was introduced about 6, 000 years ago (!) on the more sandy soils of province Drenthe in the Netherlands.

meat, milk, leather or wool

A second distinction can be made based on its primary economic function, namely, the production of meat, milk, leather, or wool. Sheep which you will stumble upon and slalom through on the trail, are mainly meat-type varieties. In other words, the ewes are used as dams for slaughter lambs. It can be the Texelaar or the Texel (origin Wadden Sea island Texel), the Swifter, (cross between the Flandrine and the Texel, origin region Swifterband), the Flevolander (origin province Flevoland), the Noordhollander (cross between the Texel and the Finnsheep, origin province Noord Holland), and the Weißköpfiges Fleischschafe (cross between many varieties, including the Texel, origin north-west Germany). The Texel is the dominant terminal-sire breed of Europe, and has excellent muscle development.

All these meat sheep varieties are of the sturdy type and can stand year-round the windy, cold, and wet weather along the North Sea coast. If you like high quality sheep meat, try the Saeftinger breed, a sheep from the salt marshes of (Zeelandic) Flanders.

Lanolin is sheep's grease. No, do not stick your tongues out, because lanolin is marvelous, otherworldly stuff. English draper and outfitter Thomas Burberry (1835-1926) developed a woolen fabric suitable as outdoor coats, military gear and explorer's clothing. If wool is treated with lanolin, a warm, not too heavy and, especially, waterproof cloth is the result. Yes, these are criteria for not only a wretched trench soldier but for a happy hiker as well. Besides this economic success, lanolin softens and disinfects your skin. Already in the ancient world, these qualities were being valued. To this day, lanolin is an ingredient in all kinds of cosmetics.

If you wonder why sheep are mostly white, it is because white wool can be dyed easier than black or brown. The gene for black or brown coat is recessive, however, and therefore you still see an occasional black sheep. But basically, black sheep were and are a financial loss regarding wool production. Hence the expression of being a black sheep (Coulthard 2020). Already since ancient times white wool was preferred, as one can read in the book of Genesis 30:25-43. How the speckled and spotted animals were selected, and how strength and productivity of sheep was stimulated with laying peeled sticks of various trees in troughs.

moulting or shearing

A third distinction can be made based on whether sheep lose their fleece by themselves every season, or that it needs to be sheared off. Be the good shepherd and make sure none strays from the flock and cannot be sheared. You do not want Australian Baaracks and New Zealand Shreks everywhere, wandering around on dikes with a 35 kg fleece, now do you? Moult sheep are gaining popularity in breeding programs these days since wool yields not much money anymore, and shearing the animals, which is laborious, becomes too costly. The costs of shearing exceed already the value of the fleece. That is even the case with merino sheep.

In the second half of the eighteenth century the quality of wool of sheep in province Friesland became poorer. According none other than wool comber annex astronomer and builder of the world famous orrery in the town of Franeker, Eise Eisinga (1744-1828), the poorer wool quality was due too inferior sheep breeds that had been introduced. The new breed was admittedly tougher and could withstand worse weather conditions, but it no longer produced the greasy wool. It had a negative impact on the business which frustrated Eise Eisinga (Dijkstra 2021).

As hikers, we must say more about merino sheep. These varieties produce a very fine, high-quality wool. Hiking shirts made of merino are excellent for both keeping warm and staying cool at the same time, and for not starting to smell bad for a week or so.

By the way, the world record shearing merino sheep in eight hours, stands at 497 sheep. That is almost 1,700 kilogram of fleece.

Going to the Sheep Rescue

With that many sheep on your path, first of all avoid to start counting them. You will be sleepy most of the day and make little progress hiking the trail. Moreover, you can expect to find yourself in a situation you see a sheep laying on its back. In Dutch language these sheep are called a verwenteld schaap, a ‘revolved sheep’. Its skinny legs up in the air. This might particularly be the case during the first two to three months of the year, when ewes are pregnant for several months.

The problem is sheep are unable to get on their feet once rolled over. Most sheep varieties you come across are barrel shaped, especially during winter when their fleece is thickest, and ewes are carrying unborn lambs too. Once it lies on its back, its organs and unborn lambs sink to the back below. Making it even more impossible to get upright.

But it does not stop here. Laying on its back is a life-threatening and thus stressful situation for a sheep. The animal might die within an hour even. The reason is that its stomach is shut off from the intestine. However, the stomach will continue to produce gas which cannot escape, and therefore the stomach swells. This causes pressure on the lungs and the sheep can suffocate after a while. Furthermore, the animal, once on its back, cannot pee anymore either. This too becomes very urgent. It can still poop, though.

So, how to handle the situation?

  1. Stop making photo's, movies and selfies.

  2. Do not rush at the animal. Approach slowly, because you might be mistaken, and the sheep can still get on its feet by itself, and is only gazing at the stars after using too much grass. Ask the sheep "Is everything OK?" Any bleating response can be considered a negative.

  3. Check the amount of poop laying next to the animal. It gives you an idea for how long the animal is laying on its back already. If there is (a lot of) shiny poo, do not push the sheep on its flank to get it on its feet. This might go too abrupt for the animal and can cause serious damage to its internal organs. It must be done gradually.

  4. Stand or kneel at its head-end. Grab the sheep by its neck, shoulders or under its armpits, and lift its head and upper back upright. Like the sheep is seated on its bottom on a chair. Keep it in this position for two or more minutes. Its organs can re-adjust, and its blood circulation can get up to speed again. Also, the lungs can breathe normal again. In the meantime, you can caress its cheeks, because all sheep like that. Even when in a hazardous position like this.

  5. Now give it a kiss on the head and push it forward on its feet.

  6. Stay with it for a while to check if the sheep is recovering. At first, it will zigzag a bit. Maybe even fall over again. The reason to stay put, is also to make sure it does not zigzag into a ditch and drowns.

  7. Pretty soon after, the sheep starts to pee. A lot. Now you can continue hiking the Frisia Coast Trail looking out for more recue.

Instruction developed by Dierenbescherming, the Netherlands

If you browse the web, you will notice the technique of pushing a rolled-over sheep in the flank, is instructed in Germany, called Schafe schubsen. In the Netherlands the sitting-upright method is instructed as the preferred option. We think too, the Dutch treat is the safer option. If you still want to use the pushing or schubsen method, than do try to check whether the animal is not laying already for a long time on its back already, among other by means of checking the amount of shiny poop. In case it is laying on its back for long, please do not push the animal.

In case nothing seems to work, and the sheep is in need, try to contact the following organizations: for Germany, Notrufzentrale Tierschutz emergency number +49 800 1111515 (hopefully dialing this many digits is not fatal); for the Netherlands Dierenbescherming emergency number 144; for Flanders (Belgium) Inspectiedienst Dierenwelzijn emergency number 1700, or consult the Yellow Pages (advice of the Vlaanderen government, sorry).

Check also this movie to see how it is done in real life.


Note 1 – Sheep have to face additional dangers these last years, namely the return of the wolf at the southern coast of the North Sea. For more on this threat, consult our post Who’s afraid of Voracious Woolf?

Note 2 – As explained at the beginning of this post, help is never far away along the Frisia Coast Trail. However, the other skill you need to practice, is how to communicate with the sturdy locals, if you want to receive any help at all after an injury. Study our post Grassland conversation carefully to learn how.

Note 3 - For more blogposts about animals of the Frisia Coast Trail area, tap the tag 'animals'.

Suggested music

Berry C., Roll Over Beethoven (1956)

The Muppet Show Shepherd & Sheep, Rama Lama Ding Dong (1980)

Further reading

Bedert, C., Schapen in het Zwin (2015)

Chamson, E.R., Revisiting a millennium of migrations. Contextualizing Dutch/Low-German influence on English dialect lexis (2014)

Coulthard, S., A Short History of the World According to Sheep (2020)

De Maesschalck, E., De graven van Vlaanderen (861-1384) (2012)

D’hont, A., Schapen in de Zwinstreek, hoe het eens geweest is .. (1983)

Dijck, van L., Schapen inzetten voor natuurdoelen (2013)

Dijkstra, A., De Hemelbouwer. Een biografie van Eise Eisinga (2021)

Dräger, P., Conflictus ovis et lini. Der Streit zwischen Schaf und Lein (2010)

Jacobs, J., Dingen die ik niet over schapen wist (2022)

Keating, L.C., Aesop’s Fables (2017)

Meerblog, Alles über Schafe (2012)

Olst, van H., Eerst op zijn kont, dan pas overeind: zo zet je een schaap weer op zijn poten (2019)

Sliedrecht, M., Out Like a Lamb (2021)

Siegmüller, A., Dwelling mounds and their environment. The use of resources in the Roman Iron Age (2022)

Strikwerda, R. (ed), Schapen en geiten in Nederland. Veelzijdig nut vormt garantie voor een blijvende status (2008)

Vettenburg, N. & Tylleman, A., Schapen- en geitenrassen. Met uitsterven bedreigde rassen (2012)

Zwaenepoel, A. & Vandamme, D., Herders, schapen en natuurbeheer in de Zwinstreek (2016)


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