Courtesy ALBC

Heritage breed sheep are animals that people have been counting on for centuries. Why should you raise a heritage breed for your homestead?

If you have a small farm, or are thinking of one, and you have a few acres for pasture then sheep may be a great idea. They are some of the most versatile livestock you can own. Why?

- Meat - lamb is a pretty tasty item to most carnivores. Mutton isn't bad either, when it is cooked and seasoned right. A 135-pound lamb will yield about 60 pounds of meat. Lamb takes about four months to finish.

- Milk - Sheep's milk is a rich milk that has been used for cheese and dairy in many countries. It is still not well known in the United States but more people are becoming aware of this product.

- Fiber - You have not lived until you have wrestled a sheep down, laid over it with as much of your body as you could, and begun to shear only to have the insurance guy dressed in a suit show up unexpectedly in your back yard. Some sheep grow a more luxurious fiber than others. If you are going to spin your wool you will want a breed that produces quality fiber. It is incredibly satisfying to knit from wool you raised and sheared.

Choosing a Heritage Breed Sheep

Choosing a breed of sheep is not too difficult once you take into considerations several factors:

- Climate - some sheep just don't do well in the heat. I know that Icelandics are said to do well anywhere but they often don't thrive in Texas because of the hot, dry summers.

- Use - if you are going to use sheep for a particular purpose try to choose one that fits the bill. If you want a sheep for your table and you aren't interested in spinning then you don't need to worry about the fiber.

- Dietary needs - some sheep forage better than others. If you want a less expensive breed then look for one that is a good forager. You will still need to feed it but not as much. - Preference - let's face it, you want to gaze out into your fields and enjoy what you are looking at. Choose a breed that you like the look of. Heritage Breed Sheep on the ALBC's Critical List The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has listed several sheep breeds on the critical list. That means these breeds are in danger of being lost to humanity forever. 1. Gulf Coast Native Sheep Gulf Coast Native Sheep are descendants of the sheep that were brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Because of their fine wool the sheep are thought to be a cross between the Spanish Churro and Merino. These animals are adaptable to many climates and do well in hot, humid conditions similar to those on the Gulf Coast. This is an all purpose breed that is very resistant to parasites and disease. These sheep breed year round rather than just lambing in the spring. You can therefore have a steady supply of meat rather than a huge amount in the spring and none the rest of the year. The milk is high quality for any dairy use, and is excellent for artisan cheese. The wool is a favorite of hand spinners, having a soft, open characteristic with a little crimp and 2.5 to 4.0 inches staple length. 2. Hog Island Sheep Hog Island Sheep are mostly white wooled, although there are a small percentage that are black. This is a hardy breed that inhabited a barrier island off of the coast of Virginia from the 1700s to about 1978 when the sheep were removed and relocated. These animals are excellent foragers, used to finding their own food. This heritage breed gives medium weight wool but is not primarily used for its fiber. 3. Leicester Longwool Sheep The Leicester Longwool was developed in England in the 1700s. After it was brought to the United States, George Washington began to raise the breed. This heritage breed has a long, lustrous, silky wool that spirals out to about 8 inches. While the Leicester can be used for meat or milk the value of the breed is in the wool. The fiber is a joy to card and spin with and knitters love it. 4. Romeldale Sheep The Romeldale was developed in California in the early 1900s. This heritage breed is white wooled but another type called the CVM (California Variegated Mutant) is multicolored. The fleece quality, plus the coloration, of the Romeldale makes it a favorite amongst spinners. 5. Santa Cruz Sheep The Santa Cruz breed of sheep developed from Merino and Rambouillet breeds. They ended up as a feral breed on Santa Cruz Island and did not genetically mix with other breeds. Their wool is soft and short. This breed is raised mostly for its historic significance and meat. 6. Jacob Sheep Jacob or Jacob's Sheep are my personal favorite. They are named after Jacob in the Bible because they are spotted in black and white. Some areas of their wool can reach an almost lavender color. The most interesting thing for many people about this dual purpose breed is that they often have four horns; six horns are not unkown. The Jacobs is considered a dual purpose breed, providing both meat and fiber to the homestead. 7. Navajo Churro Sheep This breed was brought from Spain in the early 1500s and used on the missions throughout the Southwest for meat and weaving. This is another breed that handles hot, dry conditions well and thrives on forage. The wool is long and has been used through out the centuries for weaving Navajo rugs and carpets. The Churro is an easy breed to care for but it will need a good area for browsing. Keeping Heritage Breed Sheep Heritage breeds tend to like to graze and forage for their food. Sheep, because of the way that they pull the grass from the base, can create a muddy wasteland out of a lush pasture in a matter of months if they are not handled correctly. Always use good pasture rotation methods and don't keep more sheep than is recommended for your pasture area. The breeder you buy from can help you with choosing the right amount for your needs. Sometimes the various breed registries have an adopt a sheep program. These are handled in different ways, but are meant to ensure that feral sheep that are being moved have a safe and caring new home. It is a great way to acquire a heritage breed if it is available to you.