Heritage Breeds of Sheep
Find the best of these multipurpose heritage breeds of sheep for your homeplace.
The polycerate Jacob is striking to look at, and they are being used in research to find a cure for Tay-Sachs disease.
Peg Bostwick, Sweetgrass Jacobs, St. Johns, Michigan
Spanish explorers and colonists brought the first sheep to the Americas about 500 years ago. In today’s America, the value of sheep to the small farm or homestead is readily apparent. They can provide a variety of products and services including wool, meat, milk, fertilizer, landscaping, entertainment and more.
Selecting a breed for your farm depends on your purposes; some sheep breeds are excellent wool producers, while others have been selected primarily for meat. When adding sheep to your farm, consider one of the 23 breeds listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List.
Many of these sheep breeds retain traditional characteristics such as parasite and disease resistance, climate adaptation, maternal abilities, non-seasonal reproduction, and other valuable traits. They also come with rich histories and cultural connections. Today, many of these breeds are threatened with extinction due to modern agriculture’s use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum outputs in controlled environments. These 23 breeds do, however, excel on small farms and in pasture-based systems – so give these “ewe”nique breeds a chance! Here are a few examples.
Don’t let the word “hog” fool you, this story is all about the sheep. The Hog Island sheep breed has its beginnings in the 18th century. It was developed from British sheep brought over to Virginia’s barrier island, Hog Island, which was historically inhabited by America’s earliest colonists. The sheep evolved in response to the island’s isolation and natural selection for hardiness, foraging ability and reproductive efficiency – creating a unique breed. In the 1930s, hurricanes destroyed much of Hog Island and eventually all the inhabitants moved to the mainland; however, many of the sheep were left on the island and reverted to a feral state. For many years, Hog Island was a herd haven for this feral breed, but in the 1970s, the Nature Conservancy purchased Hog Island, and most of the sheep were removed in an effort to preserve the native grasses. A few historic sites and individual breeders took in the sheep and have been working to maintain this rich part of American history and culture.
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