Droving sheep at sunset with storm – Powder River Basin – Wyoming.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Jeremy Buckingham MLC.
Talk about an idyllic farm picture. Scatter some sheep across a green “veriditas” pasture under a few trees. Or watch a collie herd a flock of sheep across a mountain rangeland. This mammal is a good fit in a pastoral rural landscape, a hardy and rugged flock animal which provides healthy meat and fiber for humans. The number of sheep being raised in America has diminished greatly since the 1950’s, but they are coming back on today’s small, organic farms and among local food movement meat appreciators.
Sheep were being domesticated 9 to 11 thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. In Europe, sheep husbandry was taking place 600 B.C. in the south of France. They descended from the Asian mouflon which are still found in the mountains of Asia Minor and southern Iran.
The number of domestic sheep in the world is over one billion. Sheep were introduced into the United States in 1607. In the early 19th century, sheep production in the U.S. moved westward where rangeland competition between cattle and sheep have been ongoing ever since.
The sheep is a ruminant animal, that having a four-chambered stomach and chewing a cud. Sheep are mostly grazers as opposed to goats which tend to forage on a wider variety of plants. Sheep prefer to eat forbs, or flowering plants, as well as grass and clover. They are useful at controlling weeds such a leafy spurge, knapweed, and kudzu. Sheep love to eat grain, but if it is added to their diets, it must be introduced slowly.
There are more than 200 distinct sheep breeds worldwide. Breeds vary according to their quality of meat, milk, and wool production as well as their hardiness and adaptability. Wool fiber characteristics are described as fine, medium, and long, or carpet wool. A rich, moist, pasture acre might support ten grazing sheep whereas an arid pasture condition might require ten acres per sheep. The intelligent Border Collie is a popular dog for working sheep. Sheep are often marked by their owners with ear tags, or raddles, which are temporary colored pigments. Sheep growers must work to prevent predators such as coyotes and dogs from reducing their herds.
Wool-producing sheep breeds need sheared at least once a year, preferrably in the spring. One sheep might produce seven pounds of grease wool. Because of the expense of shearing, hair sheep varieties which shed their coat naturally, are gaining in popularity.
Foraging herbivores such as sheep under managed or “prescribed” grazing conditions, are beneficial to grasslands and help to improve biodiversity. But, care has to be taken not to allow sheep to over-graze, which damages range land.
Sheep production has been on the decline in the United States. It peaked at 56 million head in 1945, and went down to 7 million head in 2003. Larger sheep operations are in the Western U.S. and smaller ones are in the Northeast, where the meat is more popular. Texas, California, and Wyoming are the top sheep-producing states. Meatpacking concentration has eroded prices for sheep producers in the U.S., contributing to the decline in herds. The development of synthetic fabrics in the 1960’s hurt the wool industry. However, small local lamb producers are being embraced in the eat-local and farmers market movements that are popular today.
Now, the U.S. imports much of its lamb from Australia and New Zealand, where sheep are grass-fed and generally smaller weight animals. Australia accounts for almost 30 percent of the world’s lamb and mutton exports and New Zealand accounts for over 40 percent. These two countries also have the highest lamb and mutton consumption in the world at 50 pounds per year for New Zealand and 37 pounds per year for Australia, as compared to 1 pound per year in the U.S.
To follow are photos and brief descriptions of some of the most popular sheep breeds being raised in the U.S., plus a few heritage varieties.
MERINO WOOL SHEEP
Merino wool sheep – Virginia.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via brownpau.
Merino sheep breeds are fine wool sheep found in Australia, South Africa, South America and the U.S. This variety accounts for about 50 percent of the world’s sheep population. Fine wool sheep do well in arid and semi-arid regions, have a strong flocking instinct, are productive, adaptable, excellent foragers, and are long-lived. The merino wool sheep has fine and soft, high quality wool and is slightly smaller than sheep bred just for meat. Merino, a Spanish word, is historically well-known in Spain where it was introduced as early as the 12th century. Merino wool is common in high-end, performance athletic clothing.
There are many breeds of merino wool sheep including American Rambouillet, German Merinofleischschaf, South African Meat Merino, Delaine Merino, Argentine Merino, Booroola Merino, and others.
Photo credit: American Rambouillet Sheep Breeders Association.
Rambouillet are the most popular commercial sheep. They are the foundation breed of most western range flocks in the United States. Sometimes called the French Merino, they descend from the Spanish Merino crossed with native French “Rambouillet” farm sheep, dating back to 1800. German breeders further developed and popularized the breed, which is larger than the Spanish merino. The U.S. Rambouillet breed association was formed in 1889. This is a large and long lived breed with a strong flocking instinct. It is an excellent dual-purpose breed for both meat and wool.
To learn more, go to the American Rambouillet Sheep Breeders Association.
Suffolk sheep – Ovis aries – Midlands, England.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via fwooper.
The Suffolk sheep breed is a meat or “mutton-type” sheep, with medium wool, and a striking appearance with its black legs and head. It accounts for more than fifty percent of purebred sheep registrations. It originated from a cross between Southdown rams and Norfolk Horn ewes 200 years ago on the rugged southeastern coast of England. This is a large, fast growing breed which yields heavy, good-quality meat. They were introduced into the U.S. in 1888.
To learn more, go to the United Suffolk Sheep Association.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.
The Hampshire sheep breed produces fine quality medium wool and excellent mutton. They have black legs and faces, grow quickly, and have good meat carcasses. Hampshires are large and active foragers with a mild dispostion. The breed originated in the early 1800’s by crossing Southdowns with horned white-faced sheep native to the Hampshire Downs in the UK. It became popular in the U.S. in the 18th century.
To learn more, go to the American Hampshire Sheep Association.
Katahdin Sheep, third largest meat breed.
Photo credit: Hidden Meadow Farms – Bridgewater, Maine
The Katahdin sheep is a hair sheep which has good carcass quality and was developed in the U.S. in the 1950’s. They are named after Mt. Katahdin in Maine where they were crossed by an amateur geneticist. This breed is easy-care, low-maintenance, tolerant of extreme weather, and naturally resistant to parasites. It sheds its winter coat, so it does not have to be sheared, which saves costs and makes them suitable to the warmer growing regions. They are medium-sized and ideal for pasture lambing and forage systems.
To learn more, go to Katahdin Hair Sheep International.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.
The Dorper sheep is a hardy, popular breed in South Africa. Originating in arid condtions, it is highly adaptable to many environments. Its popularity in the U.S. started in 1995. Their coat is a mix of wool and hair and drops off without being sheared. It has a prized sheepskin because it is so thick, protecting it from harsh weather. This skin is marketed under the name “Cape Glovers” and provides about 20 percent of the Dorper’s carcass value. They are a good mutton producing sheep.
To learn more, go to the American Dorper Sheep Breeders’ Society.
Photo credit: Old McCaskill’s Farm – Rembert, South Carolina.
The Dorset sheep is a medium wool, meat sheep known for prolific lambing. Polled dorsets are popular in the U.S. They are prolific breeders and milkers with a good body carcass for meat production. In the U.S., Dorset history began in Salem, Oregon in 1860, while polled Dorsets originated at North Carolina State College in Raleigh. They are the most popular white faced breed in the U.S., and second only to the Suffolk breed in total numbers.
To learn more, go to the Continental Dorset Club.
Photo credit: Wyncrest Farms – Houstonia, Missouri.
The Southdown sheep are a dual-purpose medium wool and meat sheep well suited for farm flock production. They originated from southeastern England, are one of the oldest sheep breeds, and have contributed genetics to the Suffolk, Hampshire and Oxford breeds. They were known to be in Connecticut back in 1648. They are great survivors and thrivers in difficult conditions and adapt well to intensive management. The breed is medium-small with a gray face and legs and is polled. Southdown sheep are useful for grazing weeds in vineyards because they are too short to reach the grapes.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Just chaos.
The Karakul sheep breed is a fat tailed sheep that is possibly the oldest of the domesticated sheep, dating back to 1400 B.C. in Persia. Fat tailed sheep are about 25 percent of the world sheep population and have a distinctive taste. Karakul sheep are found in very arid regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Extremely hardy, they are raised for meat, milk, pelts, and wool. They were introduced into the U.S. in the early 20th century for pelt production. Currently, Karakul’s are finding a niche in the fiber arts cottage industry, so there are small farm flocks throughout the U.S. The fleece lacks a high grease content, is easily spun, and produces a superior carpet yarn. It is the wool from which the art of felting began.
To learn more, go to the American Karakul Sheep Registry.
Photo credit: National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Association
The Lincoln, or Lincoln Longwool sheep was imported from England into the U.S. in the late 18th century. It is known as the world’s largest sheep breed, with mature rams weighing from 250 to 350 pounds. They are long wooled sheep and their lustrous fleece is in demand for spinning and weaving crafts. They produce the heaviest and coarsest fleece of all the long-wooled sheep varieties.
To learn more, go to the National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Association.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Neil D’Cruze.
The medium-sized Icelandic sheep are raised for fiber, meat, and milk. This feral and thrifty breed has coarse, low grade wool, used for carpets. The breed is double-coated with a coarse long outer coat for protection from life in extreme environments. They are a very prolific, short-tailed breed originating from Northern Europe, and brought to Iceland by the Vikings in 9th century. Accustomed to harsh environments, they are efficient herbivores, and not very docile. To preserve its heritage it is illegal to import any sheep into Iceland, where the breed is used primarily for meat. The first Icelandic sheep were introduced into North America in 1985, in Canada.
To learn more, go to the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America.
NAVAJO CHURRO SHEEP
Navajo Churro Ram.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Just chaos.
The Navajo Churro sheep is the oldest U.S. breed with the most animals located in New Mexico. They were imported to North America in the 16th century to feed Spanish armies. This breed is hardy and adaptable, intelligent, has delicate meat, and double coat wool for yarn used in Navajo weaving. Churro thrived in the Southwest and were kept by the Navajo along the Rio Grande Valley in the 17th century. They became an important part of Navajo culture, providing them with meat, milk, hide, horns and wool. The U.S. government nearly exterminated them in the 1860’s and again in the 1930’s, when flocks were massacred by the USDA to about 800 head. Today, they are making a comeback. The breed was revived by starting a breeding program in 1978 from gathering survivors found in small pockets. The species is now “rare” but not “endangered”.
To learn more, go to the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association.
LEICESTER LONGWOOL SHEEP
Leicester Longwool Sheep at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Rory Finneren.
The Leicester Longwool sheep were developed in the 1700’s by Britain’s Robert Bakewell. It is a curly wooled sheep, medium to large, with a high quality carcass, but valued especially by handspinners and weavers. These were raised in the early American colonies, but had almost disappeared by the 1930’s in the U.S. A Colonial Williamsburg project is working on bringing back this heritage sheep breed, classified as “rare”. This has been an important breed for humans. Leicester Longwool’s were instrumental in the colonization of New Zealand and Australia, and were used in the 19th and 20th centuries to create new breeds of sheep. Today they number about 2,000 world-wide.
To learn more, go to the Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders Association.