Author Sue Weaver raises sheep for fiber and felt no need to add to the flock on her Ozark farm — that is until, on a routine trip to buy hay, she found herself powerless to resist the charms of an un-woolly pair of hair sheep.
Two weeks ago I bought a sheep. Two sheep, really: a ewe and a newborn lamb. And they’re hair sheep — that is, non-woolly meat sheep. I don’t need more sheep. We raise wool sheep for fleece and we’re vegetarians! I didn’t breed our Classic Cheviot ewes for 2014 lambs because I don’t need more sheep. We don’t have extra money right now to buy sheep. But I had to. I just had to. Here’s how it happened.
We bought some hay from a guy who has a small flock of part Katahdin and part Dorper hair sheep. When John called ahead to make sure the hay was still available, the seller said a ewe had lambed just that morning. Later that day we drove to the hay seller’s farm. John and the owner began loading hay and I went to the barn to see the new lamb. As I first laid eyes on the ewe, I felt something inside of me say, “Don’t let anyone eat this sheep.” I could see she was very young and pretty. But I thought, “Noooooo, we don’t need more sheep!”
I see hair sheep all the time; they’re popular here in the Ozarks because they thrive on rough, rocky pasture, and there’s a USDA buying station less than 30 miles from our farm. Our neighbor has hair sheep. I don’t want those sheep. And I already have Mopple, who is Dorper and Katahdin and really didn’t turn out the way I hoped — instead of being sweet and cuddly (as he was when he was my lovey little bottle baby), he’s kind of a 300-pound touch-me-not, now that he’s grown.
When the elderly hay seller came over to chat, I had to ask: did he want to sell the pretty young ewe? He said he was going to sell all of his sheep at the sheep and goat sale this fall because it’s too hard for him to take care of them over the winter months. I asked how much he wanted for her and he said ewes like her were bringing $125 at the sheep and goat sale. I said I’d keep her in mind and get back to him before fall. But the more I looked at her, the more I knew I had to buy that sheep. So, since my birthday was coming up in a few days, as we started to pull out of the driveway, I told John she would make a terrific birthday present. John went back and asked how much for the ewe and lamb. The hay seller said $150. We bought them and for the second time in recent history, I got sheep for my birthday.
I named my new ewe Tansy, and her ewe lamb, Mousse. Tansy is not quite a year old (she’s a child bride) and was very wild when we brought her home. Two weeks later, she and her lamb race across the yard when we call them and I’ve already begun clicker training Tansy. I think perhaps she’ll claim Mopple’s job, which is pull a wagon and possibly learn to do tricks, since he doesn’t want to do it. We’ll see.
You may be thinking, “That doesn’t look like a sheep.” That’s because hair sheep grow no wool (Mousse looks woolly but it’s her baby coat; she’ll have short, prickly hair like her mom when she’s grown). They also usually have long tails. Wool sheep’s tails are shortened to prevent them from peeing in their heavy, woolly tails and getting fly strike, a nasty condition caused when blowflies lay eggs in the soggy mess and blowfly maggots hatch and literally devour their host’s flesh. Hair sheep can lift their lighter-weight tails out of the way when eliminating, so their tails are rarely docked. In fact, hair sheep like Tansy look a lot like the ancestors of today’s sheep. These were Asian mouflons (like our friend Maisie the Mouflon in this picture) that were probably domesticated in Middle Eastern sites as diverse as 11,000-year-old Zawi Chemi Shanidar in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in northern Iraq; Suberde, a tiny Turkish village nestled in a mountain basin in southwestern Anatolia, occupied between 7400 and 7000 BC; and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Jericho, dating to 6800 BC. We know domestication occurred in Asia Minor between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago but not precisely when or where.
Early humans domesticated sheep primarily to assure a ready meat supply, but they began developing woolly sheep early on. Archaeologists working a dig near Sarab, Iran, unearthed a figurine of a woolly sheep carbon dated to 4000 BC. The Greek poet, Homer, wrote of the fine white wool produced in Thessaly, Arcadia, and Ithaca, while Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, heaps praise on wool produced in the Greek coastal city of Tarentum. However, non-woolly hair sheep survived in many areas around the globe. According to Susan Schoenian, Extension Sheep & Goat Specialist at the University of Maryland’s Western Maryland Research and Education Center, approximately ten percent of the world’s sheep are hair sheep. An estimated ninety percent are found in Africa and ten percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. We have some too.
Dorpers and White Dorpers of South Africa are popular here in North America. These breeds, along with the all-American Katahdin and rare British Wiltshire Horn, are “shedders.” They grow short, hairy wool for winter protection and spontaneously shed it in May and June. Latin American and Caribbean hair sheep breeds like Barbados Blackbellies, St. Croix, and Royal Whites never grow wool at all. Their strong hooves and natural heat and parasite resistance make them ideal sheep for the American Southeast. A third group includes Painted Deserts, Texas Dalls, Desert Sands, Black Hawaiians, Corsicans, and Mouflons. Rams of these breeds grow huge horns. While some are raised for meat and a few for zoos, most rams are marketed to hunting reserves.
So when you see a sheep that doesn’t quite look like a sheep, think hair sheep. They’re increasingly popular throughout the United States, so there are sure to be some where you live.