Heritage Breeds of Sheep

Find the best of these multipurpose heritage breeds of sheep for your homeplace.

| September/October 2011

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.

Donald Oswald
10/17/2011 6:58:23 PM

Heritage breeds have a desired place in modern agriculture, while your articles tell of these breeds have some list or contact for who to purchase from may aid in increasing population numbers for endangered breeds/species. The recent article on sheep as example, who does one contact to start a herd? Breed association information, list of breeders,and etc. as many have few ideas where to begin! Thank you for these articles and keep presenting them, please.

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