When you think of sheep, images of gentle, wooly white creatures often come to mind. After all, wool and sheep are synonymous with one another. Did you know that there is a whole group of sheep breeds that don’t produce wool? Sometimes confused with goats by the uninformed, hair sheep are breeds that naturally shed out their wooly winter undercoat and look very goat-like in terms of their appearance. This reason alone makes them an excellent choice for the homesteader.
Why Hair Sheep?
A few years ago I was in the same boat as many other aspiring homesteaders. I was interested in sheep but not in the upkeep of wool and shearing. I was primarily interested in meat and something to keep the pasture down. Hair sheep turned out to be the perfect fit for me and are great for anyone else experiencing the same dilemma.
Simply put, hair sheep are easy. You don’t need to worry about time-consuming grooming or health issues specific to wooly breeds on pasture, like fly strike. These breeds were developed to survive in some harsh conditions without human intervention. Overall, hair sheep will do well in any climate, even though most were developed in warmer countries. They tend to be much easier keepers in terms of how much they eat, and their mothering skills are incredible. They also are very prolific, which means you’ll get plenty of meat for your freezer without a lot of effort on your part, in comparison to wool breeds.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common hair sheep breeds you’ll find in the United States.
Hair Sheep Breeds
Hair sheep still aren’t as common here in the U.S. as other countries, but there are five main breeds you’re likely to see.
St. Croix sheep are the foundation of many hair sheep breeds. They were developed in the Virgin Islands as a breed that would survive better in warm, tropical climates. Despite the background, St. Croix do very well in cool climates if they have shelter. Overall they are a very hardy breed and have an unusual resistance to parasites – another reason they are crossed so often. This breed usually is white in color, which is why they are also referred to as Virgin Island White. They are a big sheep, with ewes being around 125 to 150 pounds and rams potentially reaching more than 190 pounds.
Katahdins are easily one of the most common hair sheep here in America. They were one of the first breeds to be recognized for their commercial production capabilities. These sheep are large, weighing anywhere from 120 pounds for ewes upwards of 250 pounds for rams. Despite their size they are generally docile and easy to handle for someone new to livestock. These are very productive sheep and it’s not at all uncommon for ewes from good lines to produce triplets or quadruplets. This breed does very well in cool and warm weather. It was developed from crossing St. Croix hair sheep with Suffolks and Wiltshire Horn.
The Barbados Blackbelly is a stunning sheep breed that is naturally polled. Developed for similar reasons as the St. Croix, people in Barbados wanted a sheep that could survive well in the warm and wet climate. The Barbados is one of the wildly available hair sheep breeds and for good reason. Aside from being very beautiful, these sheep are downright tough. They can survive on poor grass while still producing numerous healthy offspring. Barbados Blackbelly sheep are medium in size, with ewes averaging less than 100 pounds and rams upwards of 150 pounds.
The American Blackbelly is personally my favorite breed of hair sheep and what my flock currently is composed of. By the name alone it’s obvious that the American Blackbelly is related to the Barbados Blackbelly. Barbados were crossed with both Mouflon and Rambouillet to produce this gorgeous horned sheep. American and Barbados are often confused by uneducated breeders as they look nearly identical. American Blackbelly rams have large, curved horns which make them easy to differentiate from purebred Barbados rams.
American Blackbelly are a little smaller than their Barbados cousins – ewes are often in the 75 to 95 pound range while rams rarely get over 140 pounds. These sheep are very resistant to parasites and produce a wonderful tasting meat. The American Blackbelly is becoming very popular in the U.S., with rams also being raised as trophy animals due to their impressive head gear.
Last but not least is the Dorpers. Dorpers are another commercial-type hair sheep and differ from other breeds in that they do have a wooly hair though they don’t require any shearing. This breed is well known for being excellent moms and producing lambs that grow quickly. They are attractive to look at and also do well in pretty much any weather. Like many hair sheep, they are disease resistant and though they have more of a wooly hair, they don’t suffer from health issues related to true wooly sheep breeds. Like the Katahdin, the Dorper is a large sheep – ewes average more than 150 pounds and rams can reach more than 250 pounds.
Finding Hair Sheep in Your Area
As with any livestock, it is usually a good idea to visit the breed organization’s website to find a local breeder. If you are experienced with selecting healthy livestock or have someone who can help you, Craigslist and other online classifieds are another way to go. It is advisable to avoid most livestock auctions, however. If you have trouble finding the breed you are looking for, ask around! Get in contact with sheep breeders to see if they know. You also can put up want ads online and in your local farm store.
Hair sheep really are an amazing and rewarding sheep to work with. If you love lamb and mutton you’ll be happy to know that hair sheep produce much more tender and tasty meat than wooly sheep (the lanolin in the wool changes the flavor). It isn’t surprising for someone who typically hates lamb to dig right into a nice cut from a hair sheep and find it delicious.
What is your favorite breed of hair sheep? Share your ideas in the section below: