The health benefits of sheep milk from the Island of Pag

Sirana Gligora overlooks some of the best grazing ground on the Island of Pag

On the Island of Pag in Croatia, sheep have been raised for milk for thousands of years and are the original choice of animal for dairy milk, there are approximately 55,000 sheep on the island which are found mostly in smallholdings or family farms.  Sirana Gligora have over 100 of their own sheep and help support the traditional dairy practices by buying milk from over 200 independent farmers.

Pag sheep milk is highly nutritious, richer in vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium than cow’s milk. It contains a higher proportion of short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which have recognized health benefits. For example, short-chain fatty acids have little effect on cholesterol levels in people. They make milk easier to digest. According to a German researcher, sheep milk has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than the milk from pigs, horses, goats, cattle, and humans. CLA is a cancer-fighting, fat-reducing fat. The fat globules in sheep milk are smaller than the fat globules in cow’s milk, making sheep milk more easily digested.

Make no mistake that Sirana Gligora make Paški Sir only from fresh Pag milk though it is said that sheep milk can be frozen and stored until a sufficient quantity of milk is available to sell or make cheese. Freezing does not affect the cheese-making qualities of the milk. Sheep milk has a higher solids content than goat or cow milk. As a result, more cheese can be produced from a liter of sheep milk than a liter of goat or cow milk. Sheep milk yields 18 to 25 percent cheese, whereas goat and cow milk only yield 9 to 10 percent. While sheep usually produce less milk than goats and much less than cows, sheep milk sells for a significantly higher price per liter, almost four times the price of cow milk.

Paški Sir (Island of Pag Cheese)

Most of the sheep milk produced in the world is made into cheese. Some of the most famous cheeses are made from sheep milk: Feta (Greece, Italy, and France), Ricotta and Pecorino Romano (Italy) and Roquefort (France) and of course Sirana Gligora’s own Paški Sir, winner of the Best New Cheese Trophy at the World Cheese Awards as well as 15 other internationally recognised awards and recognitions.

While lactating ewes’  of any breed can be milked, as with other species of livestock, there are specialised dairy sheep breeds. Worldwide there are more than a dozen dairy sheep breeds such as East Friesian and Lacaune. Specialised dairy breeds produce 180 to 450 liters of milk per lactation, whereas the milk production from conventional sheep breeds is only 45 to 90 litres of milk per lactation. The East Friesian is the most common and productive breed of dairy sheep in the world. Their average production is 450 to 500 liters per 220 to 240-day lactation. Two other highly productive breeds of dairy sheep are the fat-tailed Awassi and Assaf breeds from Israel.  In France, the Lacaune is the breed of choice for making the country’s famous Roquefort cheese.

The sheep on Pag are a recognised and autochthonous breed called Paški Ovca (Pag Sheep). Originally bred for their wool, the milk was a by-product but today the sheep are bred only for the milk, the wool trade is now none existent on the island.

The sheep are very small in stature with thick coats and tiny legs which make then experts at clambering over the rocky terrain. Around 200 years ago a small amount of Merino rams (Spanish) were introduced to improve the quality of the wool. Again around 60 years ago a small amount of Sardinia (Italian) and Awassi (Israeli) sheep were introduced who all today make a very small contribution to the Paška Ovca DNA. Paška Ovca have unusually high fat (9%) and protein (6,5%) levels in their milk which make it very rich, excellent of course for producing world class cheese.

On the Island of Pag, all the sheep are milked seasonally by hand. This is because the sheep are raised in remote areas where the farmer must travers the rocky ground to milk his ewes’ twice a day.  On some farms, the ewes’ are not milked until their lambs have been weaned at 30 to 60 days of age. Another way is to allows the lambs to suckle for 8 to 12 hours per day, after which time they are separated for the night and the ewes are milked the following morning. After the lambs are weaned at 28 to 30 days, the ewes are milked twice per day. Maximum milk yield is obtained when the lambs are removed from their dams within 24 hours of birth and raised on artificial milk replacer, as is common in Europe (with the East Friesian breed) and in cow and goat dairies.

Coming soon, From Ewe to you…

Cheese from the ewe, milk from the goat, butter from the cow . . . Spanish proverb.

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3 responses to “The health benefits of sheep milk from the Island of Pag

  1. Pingback: From Ewe to You – Milking the Sheep « Sirana Gligora, Paški Sir·

  2. Pingback: The making of Paški Sir: From Ewe to You, milking the sheep continued… « Sirana Gligora, Paški Sir·

  3. Pingback: From Ewe to You – Terroir « Sirana Gligora, Paški Sir·

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