The Rambouillet in America: co-founder of several American breeds

The Rambouillet sheep breed is probably the most common breed in the United States. It takes its name from the town of Rambouillet in France. It is descended from the Spanish Merino which had its origins in sheep taken to Spain during the 14th century by the Moors of North Africa. Spain had an enviable reputation for producing fine wools from their Merinos. Exportation of Merinos from Spain was forbidden as Spain wished to maintain their dominance over the European wool trade. Much of the wool went to France as a raw product. Increasing industrialisation in Spain led to France becoming concerned that stocks of wool would dry up.

The French king, Louis XVI, had established an experimental farm at Rambouillet. He had brought in the best of the plant and animal world from all corners of the globe. His cousin, who just happened to be the King of Spain, wished to have the Merino represented among the elite fauna, and, in 1786, he granted the release of 359 specially selected sheep.

Later, during the last quarter of the 18th century, Germany also used Rambouillet sires to try to improve the Merino.

Rambouillet Ram - DominicCredit: Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Sreejithk2000

The Rambouillet Merinos were distributed only to a very few dedicated breeders. They had developed into a very big-framed sheep but kept their characteristic fine wool. During the mid 1800s, Rambouillet rams were being imported into the United States to try to upgrade the inferior domestic merinos.

The Rambouillet Association, formed in 1889, concentrated its efforts on keep the Rambouillet strain pure and separate from upgraded crossbreds.

Rambouillet wool has a long staple with minimal shrinkage. The threads are fine and thin and are used for finer, worsted fabrics. Ewes produce fleeces ranging between eight and eighteen pounds with a yield of 35 to 55% and a staple length of two to four inches.

Rambouillet Ewe LambsCredit: Wikimedia

The breed has an excellent tolerance to extremes of temperature and will cope with a variety of husbandry practices. They are big and rugged, capable of travelling long distances to feed. They are vigorous and produce good carcasses on grass. When crossed with other breeds, lamb production is invariably improved. The ewes have no trouble lambing and have good maternal instincts and good milk supplies.

It is a true dual purpose breed having high quality fleeces and good weight gains. Ewes will breed out of season so may have three lambings in two years. The sheep have a good herding instinct and are easy to handle. Maintenance is minimal. They have good resistance to parasitic diseases.

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With good management, the life span may be ten to twelve years or even more. Ewes are quite likely to have multiple births. Rams weigh between 250 and 300 pounds and ewes are a bit lighter at 200 to 275 pounds.

The Rambouillet has been used to develop several other breeds including the Targhee and the Columbia. The Columbia is the result of putting Lincoln rams over Rambouillet ewes while the Targhee is a mix of Rambouillet, Columbia and Corriedale breeds. Both the Columbia and Targhee were developed to fill the need for a dual purpose sheep suited to range life.