Heritage Meat Sheep Breeds
These self-sufficient heritage meat sheep breeds can provide marketable meat, land management, and maybe even wool or milk.
These rams, with their curly horns, are rare Gulf Coast sheep.
Photo Courtesy ALBC
As one of the earliest domesticated species, sheep have been providing farmers with meat, milk, fiber, skins, and land management help for centuries. The recent resurgence of interest in the fiber arts and a rising demand for quality local lamb are catapulting sheep into the limelight. These heritage breeds are easy keepers that can provide not only meat and healthier pasture but (depending on the breed) also wool and cheese. They are perfect first livestock for a burgeoning small farm, and also an excellent choice for diversifying a larger operation.
Whether you are looking to raise sheep for the freezer or want to supplement your farm income through meat sales, find a breed that suits both you and the land. Meet some of the heritage meat sheep breeds that might be right for you.
Gulf Coast Sheep
Believed to be descendants of sheep brought to the Americas in the 1500s by French and Spanish explorers, Gulf Coast sheep are a remnant of the “Golden Age” of exploration. For centuries, these sheep grazed areas of the Deep South including Louisiana, Florida and other Southern states. Over the years, this landrace breed developed an outstanding resistance to internal parasites and disease, allowing them to survive and thrive in the hot, humid, harsh environments of the South.
Today, Gulf Coast sheep are known for both their wool and meat production abilities. Lanolin, the oily substance often present in wool, can cause a gamey taste in sheep meat, but fortunately the Gulf Coast breed lacks high levels of lanolin, making the meat very mild and flavorful. Most sheep are white, but black and brown colorations are somewhat common. Their wool is particularly good for felting. Gulf Coast sheep lack wool on their faces, legs and bellies — an adaptation that allows them to tolerate high heat and humidity and makes them easier to shear. Rams and ewes can be either horned or naturally polled. Rams average between 125 and 200 pounds, and ewes average 90 to 160 pounds. Gulf Coast ewes retain superb mothering instinct, and lambs are small yet hardy. Gulf Coast sheep are well-suited to the small farm looking for low-maintenance sheep production.
The breed thrives in Southern and Mid-Atlantic states’ climates. Fewer than 200 animals are registered annually, making them a critical conservation priority.
An American original, the Tunis is one of the oldest breeds of livestock established in the United States. The foundation stock for the Tunis breed was originally imported to the colonies in 1799 as a gift to the U.S. government and entrusted to the care of Judge Richard Peters of Pennsylvania, who became an outspoken advocate of the breed. References to the breed appear in letters, journals, and farm records of some of the leading agriculturists and citizens of the day, including President Thomas Jefferson. Through the years, the Founding Fathers and family farmers developed a uniquely American breed noted for its quality, efficient meat production and fine-flavored mutton. Prior to the Civil War, Tunis sheep were a staple of farm life in the South; however, almost all flocks were destroyed during the war. It has been only in recent years that the Tunis breed has traveled from the Great Lakes region and New England back to the South.
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