• Hans Faber

Rescuing 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 recue 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 can 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 starts chewing the cud, up to fifty times. If they would have considered going to college, sheep 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 made 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 are partitioned with fences, and sheep are being moved from one section to another and back again. You will be climbing many, many of those fences when hiking the Frisia Coast Trail.



Different dogs were used to herd the sheep, like the Vlaamse koehond or Bouvier des Flanders (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 movie above).

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

The multi-functionality of sheep made them successful in world history. It provides meat, milk, leather, and wool. Along the coasts of Flanders, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, the animals have another additional function. Namely, to maintain 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 as well. 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.


Of course, with the introduction of cotton and later cheap synthetic fibres, but also mechanical lawn mowers, and the 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 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 mind on dairy, not on humanoids. At 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 and heather or moorland sheep.


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 specialised 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 are often on the verge of extinction because their habitats are too.


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 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 woollen 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, the criteria for a happy hiker. Besides this economic success, lanolin softens and disinfects your skin. Already in the ancient world, these qualities were being valued. Still today, lanolin is an ingredient in all kinds of cosmetics.


If you wonder why sheep are mostly white, it is because the 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 in the case of wool production. Hence the expression of being a black sheep (Coulthard 2020).


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 35kg 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.


As hikers, we must mention 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, you can expect to find yourself in the situation you see a sheep laying on its back. Its skinny legs up in the air. This might particularly be the case during the first months of the year, when ewes are pregnant.


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. 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-threating 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. Do not rush at the animal. Approach slowly, because you might be mistaken, and the sheep can still get on its feet. Ask the sheep "Is everything OK?" Any bleating response can be considered a negative.

  2. Check the amount of poo 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) 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.

  3. 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.

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

  5. 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.

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


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 safer option. If you still want to use the pushing or schubsen method, than do try to check whether the animal is laying already for long on its back already, among other by means of checking the amount of poo. 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 organisations: 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).



Note 1 – Check this movie to see how it is done in real life.


Note 2 – If interested in that other omnipresent animal along the Frisia Coast Trail, check our post Rats with wings or Masters of the sky.


Note 3 – As explained at the beginning of this post, help is never far away along the Frisia Coast Trail. However, the skill you need to practice, is how to communicate with the locals, if you want to receive any help at all after an injury. Study our post Grassland conversation to learn how.



Suggested music

Berry C., Roll Over Beethoven (1956)

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


Further reading

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

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

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

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

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)

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)