Heritage Breeds of Sheep

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Hog Island sheep are about as hardy as they come.
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The Cotswold breed is well-known for its fiber, but it is gaining steam as a meat breed as well.
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The polycerate Jacob is striking to look at, and they are being used in research to find a cure for Tay-Sachs disease.
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More folks are becoming interested in the Black Welsh Mountain sheep because it’s ideal for small farms and pasture-based systems.

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.

Hog Island
Status: Critical

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.

Hog Island sheep vary in physical appearance. Mature animals are relatively light, weighing between 90 and 150 pounds. Most of the sheep are white-wooled, though about one-fifth of the sheep are black. Ewes may be horned or polled, and rams can have horns or may have small scurs on their heads instead of horns. Thanks to its island origin, this breed is very hardy and makes an excellent forager, preferring to browse rather than graze. Animals stay in very tight flocks and have extremely alert dispositions. Hog Island sheep have coarse wool and fleeces that range from 2 to 8 pounds. The sheep will shed out naturally but unevenly, so most breeders shear to create a more uniform look.

American Jacob
Status: Threatened

Though the exact origin of the Jacob breed is uncertain, historians do know that piebald (black and white spotted) sheep have been around for centuries. In fact, many suggest the “Jacob” name is derived from the Bible’s account in Genesis of Jacob shepherding speckled, spotted sheep. By the mid-1700s, Jacob-like sheep dotted the English countryside, where they were kept as ornamental sheep that required little tending or care. Jacobs were imported to North America in the mid-1900s. Over the years, U.S. breeders selected their flocks for fleece characteristics. 

American Jacobs are small, black and white, and horned sheep. They are white with spots of black, but sometimes these spots can be brownish or even a diluted black or grayish color known as lilac. The Jacob is known as a polycerate breed, meaning it has multiple horns. Two, four and six horns are possible. The breed produces a 3- to 6-pound fleece that is attractive to hand spinners. It’s a robust breed with excellent maternal qualities and is easy to keep. Interestingly, in 2008, Jacobs found a new niche. It was found that some lines of Jacobs carry a genetic disorder that is most similar to Tay-Sachs disease in humans. Genetic testing and selective breeding has allowed breeders to prevent animals from being born with the disease, but genetic carriers of the defect are now being used in research to help find a cure for Tay-Sachs disease.

Black Welsh Mountain
Status: Recovering

The Black Welsh Mountain sheep is the true “black sheep” of the British sheep family; in fact, it’s the only completely black British sheep breed. Black Welsh Mountain sheep, as the name suggests, were developed in the mountains of Southern Wales from the traditionally white Welsh Mountain breed. More than a hundred years ago, farmers began to breed the occasional black sheep together, and they began selecting for finer fleece and improved body types. Years of selection led to the unique Black Welsh Mountain breed, known for its ebony-colored wool, wonderful foraging abilities and quality meat. Despite the breed’s relative popularity in the United Kingdom, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the breed was brought to the United States.

Black Welsh Mountain sheep are small- to
medium-sized, averaging 100 to 145 pounds. Ewes are polled, but rams are known for their eye-catching horns that curl around the ears. The breed’s fleece weight is typically 3 to 4 pounds. Hand spinners and fiber enthusiasts enjoy the breed’s soft, kemp-free, richly colored wool. Unlike many dark-colored sheep breeds, Black Welsh Mountain sheep do not gray with age (if only we were all so lucky), making it a sustaining source of quality colored fiber. The breed is an easy keeper, makes great mothers, and is an all-around hardy, prolific breed.

Status: Threatened

Since the Roman conquest nearly 2,000 years ago, white sheep have made their home in the picturesque rolling hills of the Cotswold region of western England. With a little luck and “shear” determination, the breed’s wool became the foundation for economic development in the Cotswold region. The modern-day Cotswold breed was developed between 1780 and 1820, and importations to the United States began around the same time.

Cotswolds are larger sheep, with adult animals weighing between 200 and 300 pounds. For many years, only white sheep were considered part of the Cotswold breed, but now registrations are available for black sheep. The breed is known for its curly locks that would make Little Orphan Annie jealous. The Cotswold is polled and sports a curly lock of bangs over its forehead. The breed is known as the “gentle giant” for its docile disposition and excellent mothering abilities. The Cotswold’s lustrous fleece weighs 13 to 15 pounds. Over the past decade, more and more people have become interested in the breed for its fiber, but it also produces a savory meat that is piquing consumer interest.

Status: Recovering

The Shetland Islands’ (northwest of Scotland) rugged environments and cold, wet climate led to the development of the distinct Shetland sheep breed that is known for its self-sufficiency, adaptability and hardiness. Though the exact history of the breed is uncertain, Shetlands likely descend from ancient Scandinavian sheep. Historically, very few Shetland sheep were exported from the islands – but interestingly, records show that America’s own third president, Thomas Jefferson, managed to get his hands on a few to keep at his Monticello home. The few flocks that were imported to the United States throughout the years disappeared, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that larger populations of Shetland sheep made their way to North America.

Shetland sheep are fine-boned and small, averaging 75 to 125 pounds. Most rams have spiraled horns, while most ewes are hornless. Shetlands are low-key and have attractive dispositions. They are known to be gentle and smart. Shetland fleeces weigh from 2 to 5 pounds, and the wool is revered for its fine, soft, strong qualities. The breed’s landrace heritage is reflected in the diversity of colors and patterns found in the wool; 11 colors and 30 color patterns are recognized in the Shetland breed. Today, the breed is growing in popularity thanks to many fiber artisans and conservation stewards who value the breed for its rich history and versatile wool.    

Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Bassett Hound and orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.