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Five Rare Sheep Breeds for the Hobby Farm

Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in PA and as an owner/operator for five years in MN. She currently homesteads in MN.

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Rare and Endangered Sheep for Small Farms

You may be surprised to learn that some farm animals are in danger of becoming extinct. When it comes to rare and endangered sheep, many of those that need conservation are heritage breeds that have fallen out of fashion with modern agriculture for one reason or another.

Other rare sheep are endangered because their numbers were small to begin with, due to being in isolated environments like islands. These types of sheep are especially interesting, because being left on an island for a century or two is basically like a time capsule for farm animals. They remain primitive, their genetics are unaltered by modern breeding practices.

Rare sheep breeds often have characteristics that set them apart from modern commercial sheep, such as an unusual appearance, natural parasite resistance, excellent mothering instincts, smaller stature, better adaptability in changing climates, lower or higher quality fiber, and greater genetic diversity within their breed.

It's important to preserve these animals, not just because they are interesting, but because they could be important to present and future food security. The Livestock Breeds Conservancy keeps updated information on endangered farm animals.

Why rare and endangered sheep for hobby farms?

Many of these types of sheep do well on less than ideal pasture. Those with parasite and disease resistance are attractive to organic operations. And finally, with rare breeds, you don't need to raise many animals to make a big difference. A small flock of endangered sheep can make up a big chunk of the total population, and a hobby farmer could care for them on a modest piece of land.

If you're a current or aspiring farmer, you should consider making space for some endangered sheep.

My Barbados ewe, rescued from a property where she was the only sheep alone in a pen

My Barbados ewe, rescued from a property where she was the only sheep alone in a pen

1. Barbados Blackbelly Sheep

Status: Recovering & on the watch list

Fiber type: Hair (self-shedding)

Use: Meat

Importance: Prolific, excellent mothers, adaptable to hot and humid environments, natural parasite & disease resistance, naturally polled (hornless), heritage genetics

The ancestors of the Barbados Blackbelly likely originated in Africa, and were brought to the island of Barbados during the slave trade. The African hair sheep then evolved on Barbados, and had some mixing with English and European sheep breeds.

Barbados are clever sheep that are always alert and active. They adapt well to both hot and cold climates. The mothers are protective of their lambs; I've seen them face off with dogs and stamp their forelegs to drive them away. They would make an excellent addition to a hobby farm, especially for someone looking to breed sheep for conservation.

Florida Cracker Sheep after shearing

Florida Cracker Sheep after shearing

2. Florida Cracker Sheep

Status: Critically endangered

Use: Fiber, meat

Fiber type: Wool, spinning quality

Importance: Hot and humid climate adaptability, parasite resistance, ewes don't suffer immune deficiency during pregnancy, two lamb crops per year, able to thrive on low quality pasture

Named for the region of the U.S. that they evolved in, this sheep has over 400 years of adaptation to the hot and humid southeast. The Florida Cracker is of Spanish origin, likely brought to North America in the 1500's, and now is a great choice of sheep for organic farming due to not needing to rely on chemical worm treatments. Like the Barbados, the Florida Cracker also displays good mothering instincts. This sheep needs to be shorn, and the wool is medium length.

If you're in a warmer climate and don't have ideal pasture forage for sheep, the Florida Cracker would be a great choice for you.

Hog Island Sheep in an historical conservation program at Mount Vernon, Virginia

Hog Island Sheep in an historical conservation program at Mount Vernon, Virginia

3. Hog Island Sheep

Status: Critically endangered

Fiber type: Wool, spinning quality

Use: Historic demonstration, fiber, pelts

Importance: Excellent mothering abilities, most ewes have twins, skilled and efficient foragers, good flocking instinct, easy to hand shear and handle in general due to smaller size, favored by living history museums, heritage genetics

The Hog Island evolved from sheep that were brought to the island off the coast of Virginia by the same name in the 1700's. They weren't all removed from the island until the mid-20th century, and now there are less than 500 of these animals in existence.

I raised a small number of Hog Island Sheep at a living history farm. They were alert, somewhat suspicious individuals that preferred their own company to other animals or people. And though they were hard to catch, once caught, they were very docile and easy to handle. I used to shear their wool with hand shears - it was soft and fine, and the spinners told me it was good quality for their work.

4. Jacob Sheep

Status: Threatened

Use: Fiber, pelts, skulls

Fiber type: Wool, spinning quality

Importance: Spotted or "piebald", 1 to 3 pairs of horns, high quality fleece for small crafters and spinners

The Jacob was brought to the U.S. in the early 20th century, but has been around for much longer than that. Recently, the North American version has remained primitive, while the Jacob breed in Europe has been improved. It is the American breed of Jacob that is in need of preservation.

These sheep are popular with crafters who work with wool. They also make beautiful tanned pelts with soft fleece. Artisans who preserve and work with animal skulls seek out the skills of Jacobs because of their striking and often multiple pairs of horns.

I butchered two Jacobs for meat, pelts, and skulls, and their meat was exceptional.

Small flock of Santa Cruz sheep

Small flock of Santa Cruz sheep

5. Santa Cruz Sheep

Status: Critically endangered

Use: Meat, fiber

Fiber Type: Wool

Importance: Heritage and unique genetics, extreme hardiness, easy lambing, thrive with minimal to no human intervention

If you life in a climate similar to Santa Cruz island off the coast of California, then this sheep breed might be for you. These sheep, like the Hog Island and Barbados, evolved into a unique population over the course of 70 to perhaps 200 years of isolation. The breed was entirely feral when sheep started being removed from the island in 1988. Since then, a small conservation effort has taken place in the U.S. to preserve the genetics of these rare animals.

Santa Cruz sheep might have their origins in the Merino; in conformation and head shape they look like small Dorset sheep to me.

While the Santa Cruz may not be the best choice for a farmer looking to make money in the meat market due to their small stature, they likely can't be beat in the arena of hardiness. Hobby farmers interested in raising a rare breed of sheep without having to support the animals much during lambing, worry about pasture quality, or fuss during inclement weather might just have their match in the Santa Cruz Sheep.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rachel Koski Nielsen

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