Sheep with Fat-Tails
The name 'fat-tailed sheep' should indicate the characteristic for which these sheep are known. The hindquarters and tails of fat-tailed sheep are much bigger than those of non-fat-tailed sheep. During times of readily available feed, stores of fat are laid up in the tail and rump. These reserves are then drawn upon when grazing becomes scarce or of poor quality.
Fat-tailed sheep are domestic sheep and account for about 25% of the world sheep population. They are more commonly found in the extremely arid regions of Africa and, depending on their breed, through the Middle East, Pakistan, North India, to Western China and Mongolia.
The earliest records of fat-tails are found on stone vessels and mosaics from 3000BC (in Uruk) and 2400BC (in Ur). There is also a biblical reference to the tail fat of sheep in the Bible (Leviticus3:9).
The fat stored in the tail area is called allyah in its native regions and is used extensively in medieval Arab and Persian cookery. The tail fat has unique qualities not found in fat from other parts of the sheep.
As might be expected from their origins, fat-tailed sheep are hardy and tough. If they weren't they would never survive the extreme challenges of desert life. Under good conditions (ie good feed and with reasonable parasite control) the sheep can be large with good growth rates. The quality of the carcass is reasonable. Most of the fat is concentrated around the tail and in the rump area and might account for up to 4.5kg of the weight on a 27kg carcass.
The wool is of limited value as it is usually coarse in quality and often has coloured fibres. It is mostly utilised for rug-making, carpets and blankets. Some of these crafts have become a cottage industry for Bedouin women.
In the western world, there is a growing demand from the ethnic population for fat-tailed sheep and there is a ready market for mutton and lamb from the relevant breeds. The Tunis and Dorper also have fat-tailed ancestry.
In the United States, the Karakul is the one fat-tailed breed that may be seen. The Karakul is sometimes known as the 'fur' sheep, with the young lambs being slaughtered to produce beautifully patterned pelts. The breed is endemic to Central Asia and named after a village in the valley of the Amu Darja River. The large tail stores fat. Below the fat sack, the narrow appendage is often recurved forming an S shape. Although classified as a fat-tail sheep, its main function is to produce superior, silky pelts in a wide range of extremely attractive colours and patterns.
Another fat-tailed breed, the Damara is indigenous to North Africa, East Asia and Egypt. They are a very ancient breed, first kept by the Hamites. They found their way to Namibia and Angola and have remained virtually unchanged for many years.
The Damara is a long, lean sheep with long legs and a wedge-shaped tail. The hair fleece is short and there is no need for shearing or crutching. The fleece can be any colour but the skin should be pigmented. Because of the attractive colouring of the pelt and its high quality, the hides can be quite valuable.
The meat is reasonably lean (although it does show some marbling). Meat of this leaner type is suited to people who have trouble with their cholesterol levels. Most of the body fat is stored in the tail. The tail is widest at the top becoming narrower below the hock.
Another fat-tail, the Altay, is endemic to the dry but cold mountain basins of China. It is also renowned for its carpet wool. An Altay ram of 82kg could be expected to produce a tail and rump of about 7kg. The Altay is naturally hardy and a great forager. The males are horned but the ewes generally are polled.
The Barki breed has a small fat tail and is another breed well-adapted to a desert environment. It is the smallest of the Egyptian breeds but has a long breeding season of 300 days. The ewes are good mothers. The breed is multi-coloured and is generally white with a brown or black head. The legs are also coloured. The breed is very common around the Mediterranean region.
The Black-headed Persian had its origins in the arid regions of what is now Somalia. It is a fat-rumped breed, having a white body but black head and neck. The division of the colours is sharply defined. It has a hair fleece. Both rams and ewes are polled. The breed has been in the Caribbean region for many years having reached there through South Africa. The Black-headed Persian was instrumental in the development of the Dorper.
The Awassi is a nomadic, Near Eastern, fat-tailed breed but more important for its milking ability. It is the highest milk producer in the Middle East. The Awassi has a brown face and legs although the face may be black, white, grey or spotted. The fleece varies from brown to white. Only the rams have horns.
Chios sheep are endemic to Greece and the Mediterranean region. They are typically white with black (sometimes brown) spots around the eyes. Often the whole head is black. There may be coloured spots on the ear, nose, belly and legs. Regional differences account for ewes weighing between 48 and 70kg and rams 65 to 90kg. Chios mature early and can be mated at 8 to 9 months. It is a non-seasonal breed with some ewes having two lambs a year. Multiple births are common. Chios are classified as semi-fat-tailed. Like the Awassi, the Chios is better known as a dairy breed.
There are two types of Han sheep – the large-tail and the small-tail. It is classed as a Mongolian sheep and was developed in the semi-humid areas of China. The tail is long and broadest at the base. The tail has a thin, twisted end which turns up between two lobes. It is found on the flat plains as the tail is so large it is difficult for the animal to move around easily. Lambing percentages vary between 163% and 270% depending on the type and conditions.
The Tong is also a Mongolian type found in China. The Tong is tough and lives in areas of 520 to 600mm rainfall where the average temperature is 13oC. The attractive curls of the lambs look like pearls. Pelts provide light but warm coats. As adults, the small quantities of wool are used for carpet-making.
Like the Tong, the Turki does not produce much wool. It is the largest fat-rumped breed and is endemic to Afghanistan. The rump has two distinct humps of fat.
The Ujumqin is endemic to Inner Mongolia. The tail of the males is around 28cm long and 36cm wide while the ewe's tail is 22cm by 28cm. Tail fat may weigh 2kg or more. By contrast, fleece weight is likely to be around 1kg.
The Van Rooy is named after Senator J C van Rooy of South Africa who set about developing a breed for prime lamb production. The breed had to be hardy, strong and fertile. Van Rooy crossed a white Blinkhaar Afrikaner ram with Rambouillet ewes. With inbreeding and selective culling, (and later inclusion of Wensleydale blood), the breed now produces prime meat lambs in an economical manner off arid country.