Which Sheep: Find the Sheep of Your Dreams

Which Sheep: Find the Sheep of Your Dreams

Photography by Richard Bailey

The wide-eyed Bluefaced Leicester -- our cover animal for Issue 3!

Richard Bailey

When it’s time to lay down your weary head and start counting sheep, which breed floats past your eyes? Fluffy Corriedales? Stately Wiltshire Horns? Or do Barbados Blackbellies flash their striped undersides as they leap through your imagination? Of course, subconscious desires will influence the sheep of your dreams: Deep down, are you seeking wool, meat, milk or snuggles?

With more than a thousand breeds to choose from, first-time sheep farmers must plan carefully, making sure to provide plenty of space and strong fencing.

Sheep are social animals, so they need companionship. Keep at least two sheep at a time, recommends Susan Schoenian, a sheep and goat specialist at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center. “A sheep will become very agitated if it is separated from the rest of the flock,” she explains. Sheep also enjoy human company, but ewes and wethers (castrated males) will make better pets than rams, which can become large and aggressive. Steer away from breeds like the Wiltshire Horn, of which both males and females carry horns, in favor of polled (that is, hornless) varieties. As long as you don’t mix polled and horned animals, sheep and goats can live together quite happily.

The Romney sheep, a long-wooled variety commonly raised in the UK and New Zealand.

The Romney sheep, a long-wooled variety commonly raised in the UK and New Zealand.

Romney and Lincoln

Wool textures vary across breeds, with carpet-wool sheep producing fibers almost twice as thick as fine-wool sheep. If you’re looking to spin wool by hand, you may prefer long-wool breeds, such as Romneys and Lincolns. These are commonly raised in rainy places like England and New Zealand, unlike fine-wool sheep, which adapt better to arid environments, such as the American Southwest.

The Delaine Merino, one the more popular fine-wool sheep.

The Delaine Merino, one the more popular fine-wool sheep.

Delaine Merinos

For many sheep farmers, the best choice for fine wool may be Delaine Merinos, which can thrive practically anywhere. Bred for beautiful fleece and smooth skin, Delaine Merinos will produce 2 1/2 to 4 inches of top-quality wool per year. (Note: Small-scale sheep farms should hire professional shearers on an annual basis, because it’s no simple matter to relieve a sheep of its fleece.)

If you're raising sheep for meet, the Dorper may be the perfect choice.

If you’re raising sheep for meat, the Dorper may be the perfect choice.

Dorper and Katahdin

If your primary interest is meat, consider raising hair sheep instead of wooled. “They are very easy keepers, are somewhat parasite-resistant and do not have to be sheared,” says Frank Craddock, a professor and sheep and goat specialist at Texas A&M University, who recommends the Dorper and the Katahdin breeds as best bets for small flocks. Dorper sheep sport smooth coats and are raised for mutton as well as top-of-the-line sheepskin. Katahdin are a hair breed that will shed their winter coats in colder climates during springtime. They are raised primarily for lamb meat. Both breeds are good foragers and require minimal intervention.

Sheep like the Southdown offers a mixture of both wool and meat production.

Sheep like the Southdown offer a mixture of both wool and meat production.

Hampshire, Suffolk or Southdown

Hair sheep make up only 10 percent of the world’s sheep population, largely because they are so useless as sweater material. If what you want is both meat and wool, then go with Hampshire, Suffolk or Southdown.

If you've got a hankering for sheep's milk, look no further than East Friesian.

If you’ve got a hankering for sheep’s milk, look no further than East Friesian.

East Friesian or Lacaune

East Friesians have been called the Holsteins of the sheep world. Sheep’s milk is higher in fat than milk from cows or goats, and tastes sweeter than either. Yet cheeses made from sheep’s milk tend to include “more savory notes,” according to Erika Scharfen, head cheesemaker at Pennyroyal Farm in Boonville, California. Lacaune sheep produce the richest milk, used to make Roquefort cheese in southern France. But Scharfen, who also manages the dairy herd at Pennyroyal, recommends cross-breeding because “three-quarter dairy animals can be as productive as full dairy animals and tend to be heartier.” Overall, dairy sheep require more painstaking care than sheep raised for fiber or meat because they must be managed to support and extend lactation.

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