Farmers in Denmark’s Wadden Sea region have been rearing sheep and lambs for over one thousand years.
The hardy grasses found in the salt meadows are rich in nutrients which give Vadehavslam PGI its distinct, salty and delicious taste.
The town of Ribe in south-west Denmark is the oldest in the country, originally founded around 710 as a trading post for merchants in the region. Archaeological digs have revealed that lamb and mutton were among the first products to be traded on the market there, having been reared in the villages of the salt meadows along the Wadden Sea. This suggests that farmers have been rearing sheep and lambs in the area since the Iron Age.
Vadehavslam (Wadden Sea Lamb) continues this tradition of raising the animals in the salt meadows. Historically, storms have hit the area almost every year, causing the farmland to flood. The silt left behind by the sea is very fertile, and has created lush meadows in the salt marshes. Here, the sheep and lambs graze in the summer, and farmers gather fodder for the winter.
The impact of the seawater has caused hardy grasses to develop in the meadows over time. These grasses are not particularly well suited to conventional agriculture, but are almost perfect for animal grazing due to the abundance of nutrients they contain. Analysis of soil samples from the meadows in the late 1960s found extremely high levels of potassium, which corresponds to the high clay content of the soil.
In normal arable land, sodium content is rarely determined because it is so low that it has no impact on the structure of the soil. In the Wadden Sea region, however, the sodium content of the salt meadows is very high − a result of the sea salt deposited when the meadows were created. The lambs graze on the meadows, and the high levels of potassium and sodium present in the grass are what give Vadehavslam its quality and special, salty taste.
The mineral profile of the grass also makes it durable and able to withstand the extreme weather conditions it encounters. In fact, it is the harsh, salty impact of the Wadden Sea that makes grazing in the area unique. In recognition of its distinctive taste, the unique environment of the salt meadows and the expertise of the farmers that rear the animals, Vadehavslam was designated a protected geographical indication (PGI) in 2012.
The lambs used to produce Vadehavslam PGI must be born and reared in the Wadden Sea region. This comprises the islands of Romø, Mandø and Fanø off the south-west coast, in addition to a section of the mainland. It is delimited to the south by the German border, to the north by the boundary of the Wadden Sea National Park, and to the east by Denmark’s A11 motorway.
In winter the lambs feed on grass, maize, silage and hay supplemented with barley, and 50% of this feed must be produced in the region. The lambs must graze in the salt meadows and the foreland of the Wadden Sea region for at least four and a half months each year to be classified as Vadehavslam PGI.
In addition to the grazing conditions in the salt meadows, another defining characteristic of Vadehavslam PGI is the expertise of the local farmers who rear the animals. The harsh environment places huge demands on the farmers, who draw on generational knowledge and experience to produce strong, hardy lambs.
Breeding techniques through the years have sought to produce sheep that can withstand the challenges posed by the physical environment and produce large, meaty lambs; they can only be slaughtered when they weigh between 19kg and 25kg. Their impressive size, along with the grass on which they graze in the salt meadows, are what sets Vadehavslam PGI apart from lamb produced in other countries.
Vadehavslam PGI is a well known product throughout Denmark and is synonymous with the Wadden Sea region. The annual ‘Lammefestival’ or lamb festival showcases the quality of the region’s lamb, attracting many visitors who sample lamb dishes in local restaurants and learn about lamb production.