Guide to Sheep Breeds

GRIT helps ewe choose.

| September/October 2008

Milk Not Mutton
Facts about Fiber 
Ark of Taste 

People have been keeping flocks of sheep for as long as history has been written down – longer actually. Experts say sheep were first domesticated about 10,000 years ago in central Asia, but they weren’t favored for their hair. Instead, those early animals provided meat, milk and hides. Around 5,500 years ago, we figured out how to spin wool into long strong fibers, and there’s been plenty of sheep and breed development ever since.

Today, hundreds of sheep breeds exist, and they are good for everything from keeping brush down in the pasture to making delicious meat and milk and providing fiber for the finest cloth. This wealth of diversity could make choosing the right breed difficult, but, fortunately, you don’t have to pick just one. Sheep farmers blend different breeds to get the traits they want in a flock. For example, you might want to use an Oxford ram for muscling, Polypay ewes for multiple births, then cross their lambs with Romney to add length and luster to the fleece. In time, your flock will be perfect for you.

Before you embark on a new sheep project, it’s helpful to identify why you want a flock. Are you interested in raising sheep for meat, breeding stock, fleece, milk, living lawn ornaments, fun or some combination of these? Are you doing it as a serious business or as a hobby? Do you want low-maintenance sheep, or are you willing to invest time and energy into a more demanding (and potentially more productive) flock?

Meat. For best meat production, consider fast-growing breeds with good carcasses. Sheep that breed out of season are best if you want to sell lamb for the Easter market. Generally, medium to large breeds are good for meat.

Productivity. Many of the rat-tailed sheep (Romanov, Finn, Friesian, Icelandic and Shetland) have litters of three to four lambs, rather than just a single or twin lambs like other breeds. As a bonus, these sheep don’t need to have their tails docked.

Fleece. Fleece characteristics vary between breeds (see “Facts about Fiber”). If you don’t want fleece and the associated work and cost of shearing, consider a hair sheep such as Dorper, Katahdin or Barbados Blackbelly.

4/27/2015 8:50:05 AM

I believe your information on the Southdown breed is incorrect. It states that Baby Dolls are a new, miniaturized version of the Southdown. Rather, it's the other way around. The smaller Baby Doll Southdown are an ancient breed that were bred to be larger for more meat.

8/24/2013 12:27:51 PM

You also left out Coopworths, a perfect homestead breed! Coopworth sheep are a medium sized, dual purpose, longwool breed, with an alert but quiet disposition. Coopworths have been selected for productivity and easy care characteristics. Difficult births are of low incidence and ewes have very strong mothering instincts, seldom leaving their lambs after birth. Multiple births are most common and the Coopworth ewe will provide an abundance of milk. Their lambs grow well with the addition of grass, making this breed ideal for low-input, pasture-based systems. Rams are virile and settle the ewes quickly. Coopworth wool is silky, lustrous and a favorite of handspinners and felters. For more info on the breed, see the Registry website;

Brad Gilbertson
1/5/2013 2:50:49 PM

You forgot about the most popular breeds in the US. They are the most popular because they are proven money makers. People don't keep Suffolk, Columbia, and Rambouilett sheep because they are cute, they keep them because they make money. This mag has a fascination with rare breeds for some reason. They are probably rare because they are inefficient or just poor breeds. If you are interested in raising sheep find out what other people in your area are raising and why they chose that breed. If they tell you they raise them because the are rare ask about the bottom line. Suffolk sheep have the largest registry in the US and this article fails to mention them. Not very thorough.

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