If you keep sheep, how did you chose the breed you wanted to raise? Was it hair vs wool sheep? Wool for spinning? Were you looking for a 4-H project? A good meat-producing sheep?
There are all kinds of reasons people choose the breed of sheep they have (or want to have). But one additional thing to consider? Stopping some breeds of sheep from going extinct!
Why is that important? Well first of all, consider the fact that 75 percent of the world’s food supply comes from just 12 crops and five livestock species, according to The Livestock Conservancy. That’s a pretty startling statistic.
About Sheep Breeds
In the US., some of the most common breeds of meat sheep are the Cheviot, Dorset, Hampshire, Shropshire, Southdown and Suffolk. Many folks get crosses from these and other breeds as well in an effort to create sheep that are fast-growing and produce more meat.
But many years ago, farms across the country had sheep breeds that suited their particular environment and solved a particular problem for each farmer. Farmers that lived in the Deep South, for example, would look for different characteristics than ranchers in North Dakota.
What that meant was that different breeds of sheep were more resilient to specific types of weather and forage. According to The Livestock Conservancy, those sheep were bred for robust health, better mothering instincts, better foraging and the ability to thrive in a changing climate.
Today, if a disease were to attack a commercial breed of sheep, for example, it could wipe out a huge portion of the nation’s food supply. That same scenario is true with cattle, poultry and other types of livestock.
What Is a “Heritage” Breed?
So what exactly is a “heritage” breed? The best way to look at it is to think of the breeds of sheep that your great-grandparents may have had in their barnyard.
The Livestock Conservancy lists endangered breeds by five different categories:
- Critical (the most endangered breeds with less than 200 sheep in the US)
- Threatened (or less than 1,000 of the breed in the US)
- Watch (which is less than 2500 of a single breed in the US)
So, if you are interested in spinning, you might consider the Navajo-Churro (which are in the most endangered group, Critical) or the Black Welsh Mountain Sheep (which are currently labeled as Threatened).
The Florida Cracker or the Gulf Coast native breeds are considered good meat sheep, and they do well in hot and humid conditions. Yet both are in the Critical category with very low numbers.
This excellent sheep reference guide from The Livestock Conservancy gives you comparisons in an easy-to-read chart. For example, I am looking for what breed would suit my needs (herding for dogs, meat production and wool for selling as garden mulch) in the Midwest. I could choose the Teeswater, which is on the Critical list and is alert, spirited and suited to a temperate climate. Or there is the dual-purpose (meat and wool) Clun Forest, which is docile yet an excellent forager.
It might take a bit of effort to find the heritage breed of sheep that you want. But I personally feel the effort is worth it. Although I currently have North Country Cheviot crosses, I may add a new breed to my flock when I find the right breed and the right breeder!
If you decide you want to look into a specific heritage breed, I want to hear about it! In addition, you can look online for a breed club or find a list here.
Good luck with finding the right breed of sheep for your own farm operation. And remember, if you can, consider a heritage breed to keep the vital biodiversity needed in our farm livestock!