Breeding Programs for Endangered Species

Rare Sheep Breeds in Countries Other Than Britain

There are a huge number of sheep breeds and quite a few that are now rare. It is now recognised that there are advantages in maintaining these rare breeds.  Some rare breeds have remained unaltered for centuries and are likely to become important genetic resources. They may possess characteristics which should be conserved into the future.

A breed that is considered important for its genetics is the Santa Cruz Island sheep. Santa Cruz Island is off the coast of California. These sheep have been feral for the last 70 years and their history is obscure. Attempts are being made to rebuild the breed which is considered important because of its long isolation and its highly successful adaptation to a harsh habitat.

Another breed which has spent much time in isolation is the Pitt Island sheep. Pitt Island lies to the east of New Zealand. The sheep are of Saxony Merino origin. The introduction of the sheep to the island in 1841 has seen the evolution of a breed which is now self-shedding and mostly pigmented, whereas it was once almost all white. In 1997, 90% were black and 97% of the rams had massive horns with complete spirals of up to 95cm around the curve. There are now a few on the mainland in the hands of rare breed enthusiasts.

Hog Island off the eastern shore of Virginia, USA, was home to a tough breed of sheep of mostly Merino blood. These survived for over two centuries with limited grazing and under very harsh conditions. The island has been cleared of sheep and cattle but around 200 breeding ewes remain, mostly in Virginia.

One of the smallest sheep breeds is the Ouessant (Breton Dwarf Sheep or Ushants). Its original home was the Ile d'Ouessant, a small island off the coast of Brittany. The dwarf rams have horns and the ewes are hornless.

The Arapawa breed is feral and endemic to the Arapawa Island of New Zealand. Like most wild sheep, they have a tendency to shed their fleece. Most probably they have escaped from a mainly Merino flock which was introduced to the island in 1867, possibly by whalers. The whalers were prone to leaving a few sheep on different islands in the hope that they would multiply and supply meat next time they landed (or were forced to land).

The Arapawa are rather prehistoric appearance and are somewhat lean and light-boned. The fleece is bulky and has a Merino-like fineness. They are considered a rare and endangered breed. Apart from the animals on the island, there are several thousand in flocks throughout New Zealand.

Arapawa SheepCredit:

The Coburg has a variety of names including Colberg Fox Sheep, Coburger Fuchsschaf and Golden Fox. This landrace sheep was named for its colour or endemic region. During the 19th century it was common throughout the hilly ranges of Europe. Early in the 20th century, these red-headed sheep made up the bulk of sheep in the German Coburg region. By the Second World War they were almost extinct.

The Coburg is frugal, hardy and long-lived. Its speciality is the long fleece. Lambs are born with a dark, red-brown fleece which becomes lighter with age. The ewes will raise three lambs in two years.

The Bavarian Forest or Waldschaf breed was once wide-spread in its native area. It is small to medium in size and mostly white. Like the Coburg, the Bavarian Forest may raise three lambs in two years and has a lambing percentage of about 180%. They are hardy and resistant to disease and to harsh weather conditions. It is a double-coated breed and the fleece is a mixture of hemp and wool fibres.

A United States breed that is regarded as rare is the California Variegated Mutant (CVM). The original multi-coloured ewe was a mutant from a Romeldale flock which were themselves developed from crossing Rambouillets with Romneys to produce the length, staple and carcass quality of the Rambouillets. When other mutants with similar colouring appeared, breeders began to develop the California Variegated Mutant. Once established, care was taken to choose breeding animals on the quality of the fleece, twinning tendencies and ease of lambing. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists the breed as 'critical'.

The hardy Debouillet is a cross between the Delaine Merino and the Rambouillet. It was developed in New Mexico in 1920 as a breed suitable for range conditions. They have no wool on the face and legs. The wool is fine with a deep, close crimp.

The German Grey Heath is descended from the wild Mouflon. The black, curly-fleeced lambs arrive in spring. Mature sheep are silver-grey with a black bib. The head and legs are black and free of wool. The impressive horns of the ram curl close to the face. Ewes have short horns. The meat is more like venison than mutton. It has a double-coat and fleeces are sent to Belgium and Turkey for the carpet industry.

The primitive Heidschnucke (Heath) was once the most important sheep in northern Germany but is now considered rare. There are several types – the white horned Heidschnucke, the grey horned Heidschnucke and the Moorschnucke (marsh sheep). Born black at birth, the adults become grey. Both sexes have attractive horns.

The highly endangered Bentheimer Landschaf is used for landscape preservation. It was especially popular in the county of Bentheim. It is the largest of the German heath and moor sheep, with long legs, a long, slender head, convex nose and small ears. It is a polled breed with a long and woolly tail.

Bentheimer Landschaf SheepCredit:

The naturally shedding Old Norwegian sheep or Villsau is a small sheep and one of the most primitive. The fleece varies from almost white to grey, dark brown or black. Badger-face markings and mouflon patterns are also seen. It has a double fleece and the male has a 'ruff' of longer fibres. Rams are horned as are about 10% of the ewes.

The Red Engadine originated in Switzerland. They have a Roman nose and long, hanging ears. The body is dark brown and the fleece a red-brown which lightens with age. They are a low maintenance breed and were almost extinct in the 1980s although this position has now been reversed.

The Skudde's most interesting characteristic is the impressive snail horn. It is a Nordic breed of the heath type and has a short tail. Lambs are born with a rust-coloured mark on the neck and legs. These disappear as the animal becomes mature. Skuddes may have three lambs in two years. The meat is regarded as a delicacy by connoisseurs.

The Solognote is an old French breed which was once widespread. It was exported to Morocco, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. It can survive on very poor pasture and is disease resistant.

The Valachian is a dual coated German breed, so rare that only animals with abnormalities are not bred from. They are generally white with fleeces that touch the ground. Rams have spiralling horns which grow out sideways up to a metre. It is a very shy breed, tough and frugal.

The Vlaams or Flemish sheep originated in Belgium. After World War II it all but disappeared. They are a fertile breed with plenty of milk. The wool is long and white with curly ends.

The Voskop (Fox Head) sheep is pale brown and produces excellent meat. They are tolerant of dry, damp and/or cold conditions and are of average size.

The Wrzosowka (Polish Heath) is a short-tailed breed. It is a unique Polish breed, adaptable to difficult conditions, disease-resistant and a good breeder, producing lambs all year round. The pelts are used for fur coats. Rams have widely set black horns. It is Poland's only surviving primitive sheep and a conservation program was started in 1981.

The elegant and distinguished Zwartbles comes from the Friesland area of Holland. It is a beautiful black sheep with a white blaze and two to four white socks. It is kept for its meat and milk. In the mid 1970s, the Dutch Rare Breed Survival Trust adopted the Zwartbles. Small numbers have now been imported into England, Wales and Scotland.

Zwartbles SheepCredit:

The Guirra, also known as the Levant Red or Sudat, is a Spanish breed found near the Mediterranean coast. Most have medium-fine fleeces which vary from reddish-brown to yellow-white. Newborn lambs are a rich red-brown. 'Guirra' means 'reddish' and 'Sudat' 'greasy'.

The dual coated Karakul is one of the oldest domesticated breeds. They have a fat, broad tail. In its native Central Asia, the pelts of very young lambs have tightly curled wool and are sold as 'Persian lamb'. In the United States, the long colourful fleeces are sought after by hand-spinners and felters. It is listed as 'rare' by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy.

The first domesticated sheep brought into North America was the Spanish Churro. Navajo Indians acquired sheep through raids and trading and developed their own Navajo Churra. An 'improvement' program introduced by the government saw the breed come close to extinction but, although still classed as 'rare' by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, numbers are slowly growing. The long, fine, double fleece is low in oil and coarse in texture. Navajo tribes weave rugs and blankets from the wool.

Small sheep breeders wishing to help in preserving one of these rare breeds have plenty to choose from. Many of the breeds have a Breed Society. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust would be other starting places if researching these beautiful rare breeds.