Raised for their hides, meat, milk, and wool, sheep are versatile. In addition to providing a local source of food and fiber, small flock owners are looking to support livestock conservation by venturing into raising rare sheep breeds. By choosing one of these five critical breeds you can help preserve a historic breed that our forefathers raised. Heritage breeds tend to have better disease resistance, are well-adapted to their environments, and thrive in pasture-based settings.
Heat tolerant and parasite resistant, the Florida Cracker is one of the oldest breeds of sheep in North America. Possibly originating from sheep that the Spanish brought in the 1500s, these sheep developed mainly through natural selection from Florida’s humid semitropical conditions. According to The Livestock Conservancy, prior to 1949, this rare sheep breed could free range in the pastures, palmettos, and piney woods. Ranchers would round them up twice a year for shearing and to mark the lambs. Like many critical livestock stories, the Florida Cracker population diminished as the result of consumers favoring larger sized animals that produced more wool and meat. These new breeds were high input and were hard on the environment. Luckily, with renewed interest in low-input sustainable agriculture, interest in Florida Cracker is increasing.
Currently, there are only four breeders registered with The Livestock Conservancy, making it a bit difficult to find purebreds. Florida Cracker sheep are active and vigorous. They are a friendly breed. The ewes, which can weigh 100 pounds, can breed one month after lambing. The ewes can produce two lamb crops per year, and usually, bear twins. Rams can reach 150 pounds, depending on how well they are fed. The sheep can handle harsh conditions and low-grade forages.
Gulf Coast / Gulf Coast Native
Laura McWane of Pippinarrow Cottage Farm chose Gulf Coast sheep because of their ability to handle the heat in central Alabama and their reputation of being disease and parasite resistant.
“I don’t use chemical de-wormers, so the parasite-resistance was important to me when choosing a breed,” said McWane.
McWane has observed Gulf Coast sheep are calm and gentle-natured, including the rams.
“They grow a decent wool and produce a fair amount of milk for the average homesteader. They are easy to handle, thrifty, and well-suited to the Southeastern climate.”
Joyce Kramer of Granpa K Farm in Brooklyn, Connecticut, has found the GCN to be the perfect breed for her small New England farm.
“They handle our cold New England winters and the transfer to our hot, humid summers perfectly. Although our ewes have the option to lamb in the barn, most choose to lamb outdoors. Even in the coldest months of January and February. Low maintenance and easy lambing make them an excellent choice for a novice shepherd.”
Kramer’s interest in Gulf Coast sheep began when she was gifted with two unregistered ewes, from a family member. With much research and traveling to multiple states, she was able to add some new “old” lines into her flock.
“At this point, there is a total of under 3,000 animals registered, with the Gulf Coast Sheep Association,” says Kramer.
In addition to meat lambs, Kramer occasionally has small starter flocks for those interested in breeding. She has supplied several starter flocks to other farms. Her plan is to broaden the New England gene pool by bringing other lines up from the South in the future.
Although she has not spun herself, Kramer has had several people comment on the Gulf Coast sheep’s amazing fiber.
“They have an irresistible, mild, tender meat and we have also starting milking some of our small flock and making some basic cheeses,” she said.
Laura Marie Kramer is the owner of La Bella Farm and has been raising Hog Island sheep for two years.
“I wanted to raise a heritage breed of sheep and when I learned about Hog Island Sheep, I loved that the breed was developed on Hog Island which is a barrier island for the Delmarva Peninsula, where my farm is located. When I learned how few of these sheep remained, I felt our farm could really make a difference in helping the breed recover.”
From the 1700s up until the 1930s, residents of the island tended their sheep. In the 1930s, an uptick of hurricanes discouraged the residents from continuing island life. 15 years later all of the residents migrated to mainland Virginia, many took their sheep. Some sheep remained on Hog Island and were sheared annually. This was the only time the flock and the shepherds would interact. The sheep survived by consuming the marsh grass and drinking fresh water from small pools.
In 1974, the Nature Conservancy purchased the island and all the sheep were to be removed. Four years later, Virginia Coast Reserve agents found a thriving flock of sheep on the island! The Livestock Conservancy says this is a testament to the extreme hardiness of these animals.
The breed is a true dual-purpose breed, that produces great wool and meat. The wool varies in color, is used for spinning, and can be felted. Kramer says that Hog Island lamb is a real treat, with its tenderness and flavor. She adds that the meat has a cleaner taste than most lamb with a sweet grassy finish.
“Hog Island sheep are a great fit for experienced and inexperienced homesteaders; they are hardy and would be a great breed for someone that is new to raising sheep. Our flock is very self-sufficient and they are great foragers.”
She raises her flock on 100 percent pasture with free choice minerals and has experienced no problems maintaining body condition.
“They are very calm but have unique personalities and they don’t mind being pastured with other animals. The ewes make great mothers, twins are normal, and they lamb on pasture with very few problems. The rams are very docile and sweet. We shear our flock but they do slowly shed,” said Kramer.
If you are interested in raising sheep for wool the Romeldale is a great choice. Romeldale is an American fine wool breed, and the California Variegated Mutant (CVM) is its multi-colored derivative. Both are considered rare sheep breeds and are unique to the United States. Romeldale sheep are primarily white, although a Romeldale with coloring on its face or legs is still referred to as a Romeldale. To be registered as a California Variegated Mutant, a Romeldale must have a badger-marked face and colored body or a colored head and body (no badger face) with darker legs and underbelly. The Romeldale breed provides the breeder with the opportunity to raise a wide range of colored sheep, as well as white sheep — providing an opportunity to market both white and colored fleeces to hand spinners.
Robert C. May, the owner of Swayze Inn Farm located in Hope, New Jersey, was immediately drawn to the breed’s docile personality and its soft, fine, crimpy fleece.
His farm was the first registered breeder of Romeldale sheep in New Jersey back in 2002.
“My wife Diane and I purchased Swayze Inn Farm in the summer of 2001. With more than ample room for our flock of Jacob Sheep, and being aware that many shepherds often raise more than one breed of sheep, I started thinking about the possibility of adding another sheep breed. I stumbled upon the Romeldale breed when doing an internet search for rare sheep breeds.”
Today, their flock of Romeldales includes 20 breeding ewes and five breeding rams.
“Romeldales are a medium-size breed with mature rams weighing between 175 and 200 pounds and adult ewes weighing in the 120 to 150-pound range. Ewes typically twin (with occasional triplets), are good mothers, and produce ample quantities of milk for their lambs. Lambs are hardy, and grow quickly,” says May.
“At four months of age, most of our Romeldale lambs weigh around 80 pounds. The breed does extremely well on pasture (spring to autumn) supplemented with good quality hay in winter. I use only a minimal amount of grain to supplement the ewes during and after lambing.”
May says that Romeldale Sheep typically produce eight to 12 pounds of wool per sheep. Their fleeces sell quickly to an increasing number of hand spinners who appreciate the fine, crimpy fiber.
“I always hold back some of our Romeldale fleeces for processing as roving and yarn, to fill orders from spinners, weavers, knitters, and others who crochet.”
May suggests raising Romeldales as it doesn’t cost any more to raise them compared to more popular breeds, like the Dorper sheep, that are among the fastest growing breed.
“The addition of a Romeldale ram to ewes of another breed with coarser fleeces will result in offspring with better fleeces and fast-growing lambs. Each year I cross a number of our Jacob ewes with our CVM rams and consistently have cross-bred lambs with finer fleeces than their Jacob dams. The cross-bred lambs also grow more quickly than our Jacob lambs do, with both breeds fed exactly alike.”
“In addition to selling Romeldale lambs as breeding stock, I sell a number of Romeldale freezer lambs each year and have the pelts processed by a local tanner. Romeldale pelts provide us with another source of income from our flock.”
May enjoys being able to help keep the breed from becoming extinct.
“With less than 200 annual registrations of Romeldales/ CVM Romeldales with breed registries, in a small way, we’re doing our part to help ensure that the Romeldale breed is around for another century.”
Jim and Lynn Moody, owners of Blue Oak Canyon Ranch located near San Miguel, California, have been breeding Santa Cruz Island sheep for eight years. They chose the rare sheep breed to help preserve the breed’s heritage and unique story.
The sheep are named after one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. Sheep lived on the island for between 70 and 200 years. When some sheep escaped, they went unmanaged for some time and the Santa Cruz sheep breed evolved into an exceptionally hardy breed, with virtually no birthing problems, a high survival rate, and an ability to thrive on marginal forage.
“This breed is drought tolerant and will forage on shrubs as well as graze, and since they are small sheep, they are thrifty and easily managed,” Moody says. “Their small size should make them excellent for grazing in orchards and vineyards, with proper management.”
Kristen Bacon of Tranquil Morning Farm in Connecticut chose the breed because of her family’s involvement in 4H.
“We are in a position to reach a lot of people with our rare sheep. We exhibit them at fairs, fiber festivals, educational forums, schools, and more. We bring them anywhere we can find an audience interested in learning about these amazing sheep.”
Bacon says Santa Cruz sheep are a great choice for a homestead.
“Their fleece is unique. While it has a short staple length, it is extremely fine and has an amazing elasticity that you just don’t find in any other wool. Being so rare, it can bring more money per fleece than other breeds.”
The pros for this rare sheep breed are that they are more disease, foot rot, and parasite resistant than many breeds. The con is that because of their isolation they can be flighty compared to modern sheep breeds.
Homesteaders should consider raising critical breeds to help save genetic diversity. As a bonus, these breeders can produce and sell unique food and fiber for a niche market. In addition to Sheep! magazine, The Livestock Conservancy lists breeders of rare sheep breeds for those that want to get started.
A little over a year ago, Mike Kearney, owner of Little Flower Farm located in Pennsylvania, did just that. After consulting with The Livestock Conservancy to map the overall genetics of the Santa Cruz sheep, Kearney went on a sheep expedition. Collecting sheep from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Oregon, Kearney started a genetically significant flock.
“Our next step is to hopefully work with the very limited number of breeders to complete our cross country genetic exchange and then hopefully get more breeders interested in first helping us to preserve the breed, and then ultimately helping to bring the breed back in greater numbers.”
Do you raise rare sheep breeds? If so, tell us about your experiences in the comments below.