Whether you want wool, meat or milk, you'll find the
right sheep in our vet's rundown on...
Randy Kidd, D.V.M.
All the evidence available to us today indicates that the
association between humans and sheep goes back to
prehistoric times. Of course, there's little doubt that
many a wild ram and ewe wound up in the bellies of
Neanderthal hunters . . . and surviving records—in
the form of testaments, artwork, and such—show that
primitive pastoral peoples used domesticated sheep for
wool, skins, milk, and tallow as well as for meat. For
example, an early Egyptian sculpture shows sheep being
driven across a freshly sown field in the Nile Valley,
apparently so their hoofs could press the seeds into the
soil. Furthermore, wool was used as clothing material by
the Babylonians at least 4,000 years before the birth of
Christ. All in all, then, we've been together a long time.
And—over those centuries—if humankind has
affected the development of sheep, sheep have, in turn,
affected the development of nations. In England, the wool
industry flourished until, by the sixteenth century, it had
become the chief source of revenue for the Crown. While
Spain (to give a more dramatic example) refused to give up
its monopoly on Merino sheep—the secret of that
country's lucrative wool export industry—to the point
that Spanish law actually specified the death penalty for
anyone found guilty of exporting a live Merino!
In recent years wool has been largely supplanted by
synthetic fibers, and only one-third of today's American
sheep raisers derive their income from the sale of fleece.
Nevertheless, wool finds its way into some of the finest
(and often most costly) articles on the market . . . it's
still incomparable for warmth, durability, versatility, and
Happily enough, the increasing interest in homesteading and
in handmade, homespun apparel and furnishings has caused a
lot of people to take a second look at sheep . . . finding
them to be practical small-farm livestock and a
source of easily handled, unusual wools. And whether a
person wants animals for meat or wool, a backyard flock can
be one of the most economical components of a self-reliant
The breeds listed below include some of the most popular
(as well as a few not so popular) types of sheep in the
United States. Naturally, this article can be only an
overview, and anyone who is inspired to consider acquiring
a flock should make a thorough study of the breeds that
seem most appropriate to his or her purpose . . .
before making a purchase.
Sheep can be grouped in any of several ways: by their
suitability as meat producers, by the length or quality of
their wool, by their face color, or by their adaptation to
different altitudes. Probably the most useful kind of
grouping is classification by wool grades . . . which has
gone through its own evolution over the years. The most
modern method uses the micron (1/25,000 inch) as a
standard, and then rates wool by the average diameter of
the fibers in a given lot: The finer the wool, then, the
smaller the micron number.
The micron system appears to be more technically accurate
than its predecessors (such as the formerly popular "count"
system, for instance, which classed wool by the number of
hanks that could be spun from a pound), and there is some
effort being made to establish it as the standard for
describing wools in the United States. Few people, however,
have a "feel" for micron measurement, so the sheep listed
here are simply categorized as having fine, medium, or long
The fine-wooled breeds in the U.S. include the American
Merino, Delaine Merino, Rambouillet, and Debouillet. Like
the Spanish Merino from which they're all descended, these
varieties are noted for fine, tightly crimped wool that has
a heavy, greasy covering called "yolk". (When refined, this
combination of secretions from the sebaceous and sweat
glands becomes the smooth, oily product we call lanolin.)
In recent years the meatmaking capabilities of these breeds
have been improved, but if you're looking to put lamb chops
on the table, there are better meat types
available. On the other hand, though, ewes of the
fine-wooled types will often breed out of season ... a
definite advantage for the owner who's interested in
MERINO. No other breed has contributed more to the
development of other sheep types than has the Merino. Early
examples of this breed had thick wrinkles along their
entire bodies, a characteristic that breeders later
discovered produced wool of inferior quality. Now called
"type A", these sheep are rarely seen today, having given
way to the less wrinkled varieties known as "type B" and
the virtually wrinkle-free "type C", or Delaine Merinos.
All three varieties are hardy, long-lived, and possessed of
a strong flocking instinct. Their fleece is super-fine and
therefore difficult for any but an experienced spinner to
manage, but it does make up into very high-quality yarns.
RAMBOUILLET. The Rambouillet, a direct descendant of the
Spanish Merino, is the largest of the fine-wooled breeds.
The animals are commonly used in crossbreeding programs . .
. and it's been estimated that at least 50% of all the
sheep in the U.S. have some Rambouillet blood in
their background. (The Debouillet, for example, is a
Rambouillets are considered dual-purpose (meat and wool)
sheep. They have superior long, dense, fine wool that's
very popular for spinning. Most rams of the breed sport
large spiral horns, but some strains are polled (hornless).
The most popular medium-wooled breeds include the Cheviot
and North Country Cheviot, Montadale, Dorset, Tunis,
Hampshire, Oxford, Shropshire, Suffolk, and Southdown. (The
last five examples in this list are sometimes called the
"Down" breeds, a reference to the hills and downs of
southern England which were their place of origin.)
All of the medium-wooled sheep were developed for meat, and
their fleece is rated somewhere between the extreme
fineness and density of the Merino and the coarseness and
"open" quality typical of the long-wooled sheep. Most of
these breeds have dark faces and dark legs.
SOUTHDOWN. The smallest (and oldest) of the Down types, the
Southdown is said to produce the finest mutton of any
sheep. Its compact, wide, deep body type was used as the
foundation stock for all the other Down breeds. The young
reach market weight quickly . . . however, the
ewes—which are just average milkers—are not
prolific. Southdown wool is relatively short and can be
used to make a fine (thin) yarn.
SHROPSHIRE. The original Shropshires had a wool "cap"
extending down to the muzzle, but because this contributed
to an ailment known as "wool blindness", breeders have
worked to develop a clean-faced variety. Long-lived, hardy,
and prolific, Shropshires have the heaviest fleece of the
mutton types, but it tends to be short and varies in
quality from fine to medium grade.
OXFORD. The largest of the medium-wooled sheep, Oxfords are
the result of crossing Hampshires and Cotswolds (both
described below) in the mid-1800's. Oxford lambs are large
(9 to 12 pounds) at birth and therefore reach market weight
HAMPSHIRE. A very popular breed, used extensively for
crossbreeding, Hampshires are heavy milkers and often
produce twins. The lambs are born dark and gradually turn
white, keeping dark legs and faces.
Because of their large size (second only to that of the
Oxford in the Down group), Hampshires need good pasture and
feed, and won't thrive if left to forage on poor ground.
The ewes sometimes experience lambing problems because of
the large head and shoulders typical of the young ones.
SUFFOLK. The thin, black-faced, black-legged look
indicative of the Suffolk strain can be seen in many of the
crossbred sheep raised on our western ranges. Unlike the
Hampshires, Suffolk lambs have small heads and shoulders
and thus give little trouble at lambing time. Members of
the breed are active foragers, too, and their meat has less
fat and finer texture than does that of most other
DORSET. Both the rams and ewes of the original Dorset breed
had massive horns. Recently, however, a polled strain has
been developed. Dorsets will breed out of season . . . are
noted milkers . . . and are active, thrifty foragers.
CHEVIOT. With its distinctive white face, erect ears, Roman
nose, and small size, the Cheviot is easy to identify. This
hardy breed originated in the rugged hills of Scotland, and
is quite suitable for small farms. Furthermore, Cheviots
produce a medium-grade fleece which is prized by many
spinners because it doesn't need carding.
NORTH COUNTRY CHEVIOT. Larger than the original Cheviot,
the North Country strain is also calmer in temperament. The
fleece of this interesting "new" breed is of medium grade
and excellent for spinning.
MONTADALE. Montadales originated in America—as a
result of crossbreeding Cheviots and Columbias—in
1932. They are an attractive and hardy dual-purpose,
intermediate-sized sheep . . . with good-quality medium
TUNIS. Easily recognized by its red or tan face and
pendulous ears, the Tunis originated in North Africa. Like
some other desert sheep, it has fatty tissue in its tail,
and can call on that stored energy when forced to go
without food for extended periods. Popular in the South,
the Tunis was nearly wiped out during the Civil War but
staged a comeback in the late 1890's. It's now once again
growing in popularity.
The long-wooled breeds—the Cotswolds, Border
Leicester, Lincoln, and Romney, for example—were
developed primarily for mutton. They are typically the
largest sheep (225- to 350-pound rams and 175- to 275-pound
ewes are common). Their wool is generally very long, open,
and coarse (it's frequently used in carpets, wall hangings,
and outerwear), and heavy rains may cause the fleece to
part and allow the sheep to get wet to the skin. When that
happens, the wool is undamaged, but the animals sometimes
become ill as a result of their drenching. These strains
tend to mature slowly and are likely to become fatty, but
their large size often makes them desirable for
COTSWOLD. One of the oldest breeds, the Cotswold has a tuft
of hair on its forehead and long, lustrous wool with
natural curls, which many spinners find pleasant to work
BORDER LEICESTER. Developed in the border country between
England and Scotland, the Border Leicester has the erect
ears and Roman nose of the Cheviot . . . with wool
averaging between 8 and 12 inches long. The fleece is
coarse, and has considerable luster.
LINCOLN. The Lincolns are the heavyweights of sheepdom and
also grow the heaviest fleece—up to 30 pounds from
one ram—which is usually from 10 to 15 inches long
(one Lincoln produced a record 32-inch-long coat!),
lustrous, long-wearing, and difficult to card. These
animals are somewhat sluggish and slow to mature, but they
add size and staple (a term for fiber length and diameter)
to other breeds when used for crossbreeding.
ROMNEY. In full fleece, Romneys are noted for their
beautiful faces and beautiful coats. Unlike that
of some other "long" varieties, their wool is relatively
fine, dense, and much desired by hand-spinners because it
doesn't need carding. Romneys are quiet, particularly
resistant to foot problems, and known for high milk
Breeds such as the Columbia, Corriedale, and Targhee are
the result of attempts to produce larger ewes that'll yield
more wool and heavier market lambs than do other types.
Their fleece is usually of medium to fine quality, and many
such breeds have adapted well to western U.S. range
COLUMBIA. This strain was developed from a
Lincoln/Ram-bouillet cross in the early 1900's. It's a
tight-flocking, dual-purpose sheep that does well on range
CORRIEDALE. A New Zealand breed resulting from a cross
between Lincoln and Merino sheep, Corriedales generally
produce more pounds of wool and lamb per pound of ewe body
weight than does any other range type. They're fairly
prolific, adequate milkers, and tight herders . . .
producing wool that's noted for its brightness, softness,
distinct crimp, and ease of handling. This is another
fleece type that can be worked without carding.
TARGHEE. Targhees (so called after the national forest of
the same name) are an American breed that was developed in
Idaho back around 1926. They're prolific (often having
twins or triplets), large, and resistant to both internal
parasites and hoof problems. Their ancestors are the
Lincoln, Rambouillet, and Corriedale.
OTHER BREEDS TO PONDER
SCOTTISH HIGHLAND (OR BLACKFACE). Members of this very old
Scottish breed are among the most common sheep in Britain
today. They tend to be small, horned, and oddly mottled
with black on their faces and legs. Highland fleece is very
long (15 to 18 inches) and quite springy. It's used to make
carpets, tweeds, and mattress stuffing. The sheep also
produce excellent mutton.
FINNSHEEP. Multiple births are this breed's claim to fame .
. . the ewes may have litters of anywhere from three to
seven lambs! Finnsheep are fine-boned and medium-sized, and
they produce a very lustrous, light fleece that spins well.
KARAKUL. This is the only true black sheep . . .
since all the other dark types are mutations of various
white breeds. Karakuls are the source of
broadtail, Persian lamb, and half-Persian furs (those terms
refer to the pelts of lambs at various stages of growth).
Adult Karakul sheep have long, coarse outer hair with a
fine undercoat. Usually born black, they do lighten in
color as they age, and may turn to any of various shades of
brown, blue, gray, or even white.
NAVAJO. The Navajo is quite possibly a descendant of the
Spanish Jacob (or Piebald) sheep. The breed hasn't been
standardized and therefore occurs in a wide range of sizes,
shapes, colors . . . and number of horns: The rams
may have from one to four!
BARBADOS. The Barbados Blackbellies (see the article in
MOTHER NO. 65, page 38) are "hair" sheep with practically
no wool. A long "cape" around the neck and shoulders does
have fibers that can be spun, however. Barbados are used in
crossbreeding to add hardiness, multiple births,
and—important for handspinners—color variety.
The sheep will also breed out of season.
YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN
Improvements are continually being made in established
breeds, while new strains are being developed all the time
to meet the needs of today's farmers and ranchers. As you'd
imagine, then, this article can't do justice to
all the varieties available . . . but it might
just serve to break ground for those homesteaders whose
back-to-basics lifestyle has made them ready for a
long-term relationship with one of humanity's
oldest—and most valuable—associates.
EDITOR'S NOTE: There are many good books available on
sheep, including the interesting and unusual
Adventures in Fleece, by Buhnne Tramutola. This
self-published looseleaf notebook has data on more than 40
breeds . . . with pictures and actual fleece samples for
each one. Also included are the names and addresses of
associations, breeding farms, fleece merchants, mills, and
shops . . . plus many odd bits of information for the
enthusiast. It's available for $22 (postpaid) from the
author . . . write her at Dept. TMEN, Highway 31 North,
Clinton, New Jersey 08809.