This article first appeared in the May-June 2014 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.
Of the roughly 1000 breeds of sheep raised around the world, at least 75 different breeds call North America home, so if you want to raise sheep you have plenty to choose from. Wool sheep? Consider an endangered breed like one of these all-American breeds listed in the Critical and Threatened categories of The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List. Besides helping a heritage breed survive, there’s a ready market for quality fleeces from rare breeds like these.
Critically Endangered Breeds
Sheep in The Livestock Conservancy’s Critical category are the rarest of the rare, meaning there are fewer than 200 new registrations per year. American breeds in this category include Hog Island, Romeldale/CVM, and Santa Cruz sheep.
Today’s Hog Island sheep descend from a flock established on Hog Island, a barrier island off the coast of Virginia, in the 1700s. Due to the effects of isolation and natural selection, today’s Hog Island sheep are small (90 to 150 pounds), extremely hardy sheep known for their foraging and browsing ability and their reproductive efficiency. Most are white, though roughly 20 percent are black. As summer progresses, they shed their fleeces, though most owners shear these sheep in spring to remove their fleeces intact. A typical fleece weighs two to eight pounds with a one and one-half- to two-and-one-half-inch staple (lock length). Hog Island fleece is noted for its high lanolin content and dense locks. Fleece is usually processed by hand and used for blanket-making or for crafting sturdy garments like heavy-duty sweaters and socks. Many living history farms raise these Colonial type sheep including Plimouth Plantation, Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall.
At the opposite end of the spectrum we find Romeldale/CVM sheep. The Romeldale is a white, fine wool sheep and the CVM (California Variegated Mutant) is its colorful derivative. California sheep breeder, A.T. Spencer developed the Romeldale in the 1900s by crossing Romney rams purchased at the 1915 Pan American Exposition with Rambouillet ewes. During the 1960s, another California sheep began breeding sheep with light-colored bodies and dark bellies and heads that occasionally cropped up in purebred Romeldale populations and called them California Variegated Mutants. Both are medium-to-large (160 to 275 pounds), meaty sheep that shear a six- to15-pound fleece with a three- to six-inch, nicely-crimped staple, useful for crafting next-to-the-skin clothing and other cushy items. It also felts very well.
If you’d like to be involved in preserving a truly threatened breed and reap great fiber too, investigate Santa Cruz sheep. Like Hog Island sheep, Santa Cruz sheep evolved in an isolated island population, this time on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California. Feral sheep have been present on Santa Cruz Island for at least 70 years and possibly as long as 200 years, until the Nature Conservancy purchased the island and said the sheep had to go. The Nature Conservancy and Livestock Conservancy joined efforts to bring lambs off of the island in 1988 and 1991; today’s domestic population numbers about 150 sheep. Santa Cruz sheep are small (80 to 150 pounds), fine wool sheep. They are exceedingly hardy and boast virtually no lambing problems, a high survival rate and the ability to thrive on marginal forage. Most are white but black, brown and spotted sheep occur. Fleeces typically weigh two to four pounds with a one- to four-inch, finely-crimped staple. Use soft, Santa Cruz yarn to craft next-to-skin, cuddly items
While not as scarce as Critically listed breeds, Threatened breeds are still quite rare. Fewer than 1000 new sheep are registered per year. The three American breeds in this group are American Jacob, American Karakul, and Navajo-Churro sheep.
American Jacob sheep descend from British Jacobs imported to North America beginning in the mid-1900s. Jacob-type spotted sheep were documented in England as early as the 1600s, where they were widely raised as picturesque park sheep on large estates. Jacobs are a primitive, polycerate breed, meaning individuals of both sexes grow multiple horns; two to six horns are common. Jacobs are small (80 to 180 pounds), extremely hardy, slender-boned black and white sheep that provide a tasty, lean carcass and a good supply of fleece. A secondary market exists for tanned, wool-on pelts and cleaned, bleached skulls. Low-grease Jacob fleece runs four to six pounds per fleece with a three- to seven-inch staple. It’s ideal for knitting sturdy socks and sweaters.
The ancestors of today’s American Karakul sheep came to North America from Central Asia in the early- to mid-1900s as stock to establish an American lamb pelt industry. Asian Karakuls were historically kept to produce meat, fat and wool, but especially the wavy black pelts of newborn lambs that were sold to the Western World as “Persian lamb” or “astrakhan”. Early imports were crossed with a number of other breeds to create the American Karakul. The American pelt industry, however, failed and American Karakuls soon became an endangered breed. Karakuls are fat-rumped, broad-tailed sheep that deposit fat in an area at the base of the tail instead of throughout the body. Karakul meat is tasty but unusually lean. Karakuls are small- to medium-size sheep (100 to 200 pounds), aggressive grazers and browsers, hardy, and ewes are heavy milkers, making them useful as household dairy sheep. Most are born black and fade to gray as they age but gold, tan, red and brown sheep occur. Karakul fleeces are relatively grease-free and always double-coated. A typical fleece weighs five to ten pounds with a six- to 12-inch staple. Yarn can be used for knitting, crocheting or weaving a large variety of sturdy projects. Karakul is also superlative felting wool.
Descended from hardy churra sheep brought to the southwest by Spanish explorers as a walking meat supply, Navajo-Churro sheep bring to mind Navajo weavers who use their wool to create wonderful rugs and wall hangings and Navajo-Churro meat to feed their families. The breed was nearly decimated in the 1860s and again in the early 1900s when the Federal government sought to subdue the Navajo by destroying their livestock. Conservators launched a successful conservation effort in 1977 and today the breed is rare but not critically endangered. Navajo-Churros are polycerate and can be polled (naturally hornless) or grow up to six horns. They are small- to medium-size sheep (100 to 200 pounds), extremely hardy, and they adapt to all climates. Navajo-Churros produce low-grease, double coats and come in an enormous array of colors and patterns. The average fleece weighs four to eight pounds with an up to 12-inch staple. Navajo-Churro fleece is ideal for weaving, felting or for crafting strong, long-wearing outerwear like hats or mittens.
These breeds are only the tip of the iceberg. Leicester Longwools are also listed in the Critical category of The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List and Black Welsh Mountain, Clun Forest, Cotswold, and Dorset Horn sheep in its Threatened group. These worthy British breeds need help too, and their fiber is rare and in demand. Visit The Livestock Conservancy’s Web site to learn about additional heritage breeds. They need you and you’ll love their fleece.
Santa Cruz sheep are registered by The Livestock Conservancy
As of June 2017, American breeds in the Critical category of The Livestock Conservancy’s CPL include Hog Island, Romeldale/CVM, Santa Cruz, Florida Cracker, and Gulf Coast Native sheep. American breeds in the Threatened category include Jacob, Karakul, Navajo-Churro, and St. Croix sheep.