When my family moved to our small California farm four years ago, I enrolled in a sheep husbandry course at the local community college. The final class meeting consisted of a field trip to a nearby sheep ranch, where I first encountered exotic Barbados blackbelly sheep.
Having spent a semester learning how to handle small flocks, I was excited to discover how (relatively) easy this particular breed is to raise. I was so impressed, in fact, that I purchased five ewes and a ram and started my career as a shepherdess then and there!
Since that day, I've come to believe that the Barbados is an ideal sheep for small-acreage or beginning farmers ... because of the beasts' ability to shed their wool, their capacity to adapt to a wide variety of climate and terrain, their high resistance to parasites, their willingness to come on command, and their unique ability to lamb twice a year. (Furthermore, the animals are in my opinion, at least the most beautiful sheep in the world ... and perhaps the most intelligent.)
In order to maintain a flock of these lovely creatures, you merely have to provide good pasturage ... keep a covered salt block in the field ... supplement the animals' feed during the winter months ... administer anthelmintics (to control internal parasites) twice a year ... and disinfect the navels of newborn lambs.
I feel that it's best to worm Barbados regularly, even though the beasts seem to have a natural resistance to such parasites as stomach and intestinal worms. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Field trials conducted by the Department of Animal Sciences at North Carolina State University have confirmed this fact, showing an average of 236 mixed infection parasite eggs per gram of Barbados feces as compared to the 1,490-2,300 found in the excrement of other breeds and crosses.]
My flock has also had a very low incidence of the usual sheep diseases: pneumonia, arthritis, sore mouth, and mastitis. Nor do the rams and ewes seem to be susceptible to foot rot, a common disease among domestic sheep that causes lameness and requires time consuming footbath treatments. However, I've been told that disease resistance is not necessarily a characteristic of the breed ... so maybe I've just been lucky.
The native West Indian animals which are said to have developed from West African stock are referred to as "hair sheep," since wool is present in their coats only during the cold winter months. Their spring shedding (the wool simply falls off in clumps and can easily be gathered) eliminates the necessity of hiring someone to shear the flock . . . a special advantage for the small acreage farmer, who may find it difficult to locate a shearer willing to travel any distance to clip just a few sheep.
Because of their tropical heritage, Barbados are particularly well suited to life in hot climates (which can reduce fertility in other breeds) ... yet the beasts' woolly winter coats enable them to adapt to cold weather regions as well. As a result of their strong survival characteristics, they are at home in almost any kind of terrain, too. (I've found that my sheep will eat nearly anything green ... including my spring bulbs and the berry bushes that line our fence.)
Blackbellies do have a reputation for being very nervous around strangers (they've been known to climb six-foot fences when frightened), but my flock—as a result of much careful handling—is very gentle and tame. By giving them each a small amount of grain every day, I've taught them to come when I call (in fact, many of the animals seem quick to respond to their individual names), so I don't need to train a dog to herd them.
Mature Barbados ewes usually lamb every six to eight months, and frequently bear twins. On two occasions my Barbados had triplets, and in both cases the mothers were able to nurse all three. Once, however when quadruplets were in the offing it was necessary to have the vet help birth the second pair of lambs. (I was able to "graft" one of the babies to a ewe who had lambed the previous day, and all four little ones survived.)
The breed's unique ability to bear young twice annually enabled me to triple my number of sheep during the very first year, and I've continued to increase the size of my flock. Last November, for example, I had 20 sheep ... by June the number had reached 40, thanks to births in January and February.
You should know, however, that if you don't have year-round pasture, food must be provided for your rapidly reproducing animals during the winter months. (Since my California sheep can browse all year long, my feed costs from November to March last winter amounted to 20 bales of hay at $4.00 each. Without winter pasture, sheep in the Barbados weight category should have two to three pounds of good hay per day. I also gave my 20-sheep flock one 70-pound bag of rolled barley and corn mixed with molasses at a cost of about $7.00 per winter month.)
I keep the rams with the ewes on a continuous basis in order to allow for maximum reproduction ... and eliminate the need for a separate pasture. Ewes are usually bred for the first time at four to six months of age, with the lambs arriving just prior to their mothers' first birthdays.
The initial lambing normally produces only a single baby, although I have had a few twins born even then. The yearling mothers regularly fit into their new roles without any problems, too, a "talent" that has—on my mini farm—eliminated the need to raise any "bummer" lambs on milk bottles.
Barbados ewes are, in fact, very attentive parents, and they always stay close to their young. Sometimes, to protect her little ones, a mother will raise a threatening foreleg as though to warn an approaching stranger to stay away. Blackbelly rams, too, are very protective of the flock ... and have even been known to attack dogs in defense of the "home" pasture.
The male sheep are certainly imposing and handsome creatures . . . with along cape of hair down the neck and large, curved horns resembling those of wild bighorn sheep. The ewes, in turn, are graceful in appearance, looking more like deer than like "normal" sheep. And except for the pronounced black belly every new lamb is a surprisingly different combination of colors ... being "dressed" in shades from dark brown to variegated pinto patterns to white.
Delicious and in Demand
The Barbados is smaller than a wool sheep (the average mature ewe weighs 85 to 100 pounds, while an adult ram will tip the scales at 130 to 150 pounds) and has a lower percentage of fat near the skin, with more located around the kidneys and intestines. Since the characteristic taste of lamb is concentrated in fatty tissue, Barbados meat is much milder than is the usual market lamb. (However, because of their small size, this breed isn't generally acceptable for commercial meat production.)
My initial purpose in raising the exotic animals was to provide meat for our table, but ever since my shepherdess career was launched four years ago, I've been selling my "extra" Blackbellies to small-scale farmers for breeding purposes at $75 each! Advertising hasn't been necessary either, because satisfied customers tend to speak out ... and have brought in business from as far away as Washington state. In fact, I now have a waiting list of people who want to raise the unique, carefree homestead livestock.