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.
Today, the Tunis breed is still an ideal choice for the small homesteader looking for a profitable meat sheep with an excellent meat-to-bone ratio. In addition to its superb low-input production of fine meat, the Tunis also can provide the small farm with wool. Tunis sheep have striking red faces and legs, and are a medium-sized polled breed weighing 150 to 275 pounds. Tunis ewes make great mothers and are heavy milkers. The Tunis is known for its docility and reputation as an easy keeper. Because of its many desirable qualities, the Tunis breed is growing in popularity throughout the United States.
The term St. Croix probably conjures up images of a tropical paradise, but for many farmers around the United States, St. Croix has become synonymous for a valuable hair-sheep breed gaining popularity on small, sustainable farms. In 1975, a researcher at Utah State University brought 22 ewes and three rams to the United States from St. Croix. The population was part of a landrace known as the Virgin Islands White. Further selection and refinement led to the development of the standardized St. Croix breed in the United States. Despite its recent growth in popularity, the breed is not yet widespread enough to ensure its future.
Due to its island heritage, the St. Croix developed a tolerance to heat and humidity. The sheep are well-suited to warm climates, but they are hardy and adaptable, growing a winter coat to keep warm in colder areas. Unlike many sheep breeds, the St. Croix has a hair coat that doesn’t have to be sheared; the coat will shed out each spring. In addition, St. Croix sheep are renowned for their parasite-resistance and have few hoof problems. These qualities make for a very low-maintenance animal. St. Croix sheep are very prolific meat producers — in fact, they can have three lamb crops in two years.
The St. Croix is an attractive, all-white, naturally polled sheep with ewes averaging 120 pounds and rams 165 pounds. Twins and even triplets are common in the breed. Because of their self-sufficiency and gentle nature, they can be a great pick for a beginning shepherd.
The Katahdin sheep, named after Mt. Katahdin in Maine, is the answer to many shepherds’ dreams. The breed is a hair sheep, meaning it doesn’t have wool that must be harvested each year. A sheep without wool may seem silly, but for producers who just want to sell meat, a sheep you don’t have to shear means greatly increased profits. The breed was created by Michael Piel who was interested in developing a sheep solely for the meat market. In 1957, Piel imported African hair sheep from the Virgin Islands to the United States and began selecting and crossing to develop a breed that would have a hair coat, a meat-type body, high fertility, and intrinsic flocking instincts. By the early 1970s, Piel had created what today is known as the Katahdin breed.
The modern Katahdin is known as a hardy, adaptable breed that thrives in a variety of management systems and climates. Katahdins come in a variety of colors and patterns. Ewes average 120 to 160 pounds and rams weigh 180 to 250 pounds. Originally bred from St. Croix stock, Katahdins have great parasite resistance.
Most are polled, but some horned animals do occur — the result of crossing the original Katahdins with Wiltshire Horn sheep for improved meat qualities. Katahdin meat has been described as mild, delicate and wonderfully flavored. Whether you are experimenting with meat sheep or wanting to develop a full-fledged lamb production business, the Katahdin is worth consideration.
The Wiltshire Horn is thought to be an ancient breed from southwestern England that dates back to Roman times. It’s possible that the Pilgrims brought Wiltshire Horn sheep with them when they came to America, but the Wiltshire Horns in Plymouth weren’t well-documented. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the breed was reintroduced to the United States by Michael Piel, who was working on creating the Katahdin breed. The 1990s saw additional importations of the breed.
For the small farmer or homesteader, the Wiltshire Horn makes an attractive, meat-producing breed and is well-suited to rough, rugged terrain. The sheep are fairly large in size, with mature rams weighing 300 pounds or more. Males and females have spiral horns and are white in coloration. The breed is well-muscled and lean, foraging aggressively and independently, and producing a large quantity of high-quality meat. The Wiltshire Horn, unlike thriftier heritage sheep breeds, benefits heavily from high-quality nutrition and good management to reach its full potential. The breed is hardy and has excellent mothering characteristics. Today, the Wiltshire Horn is growing in popularity, especially in cross-breeding programs, but the pure stock is an excellent option for more intensive meat-production programs.
Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.
Read more: Check out one GRIT blogger's first experience with heritage hair sheep in this post, The Beginners Guide to Sheep.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect more than 180 rare breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Founded in 1977, ALBC is the pioneer organization in the United States working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. ALBC’s mission is to ensure the future of agriculture through genetic conservation and the promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.
Membership in the organization is $35 per year. For more information or to join, call 919-542-5704 or visit the ALBC website.