When it comes to sheep, if you’ve spent any time as a shepherd or you’re just interested in these animals generally, you’re certainly familiar with the famous Merinos, Suffolks, Hampshires, and Dorpers.
And there are many other common domestic breeds besides, but what if you don’t want a common breed of sheep? What if you want one that’s special?
From unique heritage sheep that have been basically unchanged for hundreds of years to hardly-known domestics that just didn’t quite hit the same levels of success as their more famous and ubiquitous brethren, I’m bringing you eight rare breeds of sheep that you may be interested to know about…
And who knows? Maybe you’ll find your new favorite on this list…
The Romeldale, together with its closely associated cousin the California Variegated Mutant or CVM for short, are unique, multicolored domestic sheep developed in the United States.
Crossbred from both Romney and Rambouillet stock in California around 1915, these sheep are perhaps most well known for their excellent, soft wool and heavy fleeces. They’re also, technically, a dual-use breed being bred for meat, too.
These sheep are most notable for their fleeces which tend to darken with age, and in the case of the CVM for the striking, contrasting markings on their face, usually called “badger” facing- that is what they resemble!
Although today they’re pretty much unknown outside of California, conservationist breeders have taken a liking to these sheep and they are slowly and steadily gaining them more recognition and acceptance elsewhere.
If you want a unique, handsome but still entirely capable dual-use sheep, consider the Romeldale or its multicolored cousin the CVM.
Gulf Coast Sheep
Another North American breed, the Gulf Coast sheep, has the name suggests, is thought to have originated and lived in the extreme southeastern United States for centuries, and has only been truly domesticated for at least 200 years.
They are speculated to have been left behind by Spanish explorers and turned, at least partly, wild before being re-domesticated later on.
Also, as the name suggests, these sheep are famously resistant to heat and humidity, and overall are extremely hardy, handling illnesses, injuries and parasites with no problems.
And in keeping with the general characterization of good health, these sheep are remarkably good mothers, too, and rarely have twins.
They’re also known for their high physical variability when it comes to coloration, and can range anywhere from an off-white or eggshell color to various shades of gray, brown, and tan.
A true heritage dual-use breed, they produce fine wool with low levels of lanolin and plenty of, clean-tasting meat; the latter is especially rare among heritage breeds which are often said to taste gamey.
Hailing from England, and at first developed in the early 1700s, the Leicester Longwool sheep is famous for its extremely soft, plush and lengthy wool that is sought the world over for its excellent crimp and suitability for hand spinning.
Although technically a dual-use breed, the Leicester Longwool claims many other accolades too, with perhaps its most distinctive being that it was the first known livestock animal to benefit from modern breeding techniques that are still in use today.
It was in the past also extremely popular for developing other sheep breeds back in its heyday, and spread across all of Europe and throughout the Americas, and even as far as Australia thanks to its good health and adaptability.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the breed has cooled outside of its homeland these days, though it still retains its excellent qualities. If you want a brag-worthy breed that can still be highly productive, the Leicester Longwool is a fine choice.
Hog Island Sheep
One of my favorite heritage sheep, and a breed with a truly fascinating origin story, the Hog Island sheep is about as wild and feral as any technically domestic breed can get.
This is another sheep that is thought, though not confirmed, to have descended from the domestic breeds brought by the Spanish to the shores of America.
As it turns out, not all of their sheep were brought home again; some were left behind on Hog Island off the coast of Virginia, a known fact way back in the 1700s!
These sheep remained there, confined to the island, for at least 200 years, and adapted completely to the local climate.
These sheep show considerable variation in overall size and appearance, but they are remarkably healthy and rugged sheep because they have pretty much turned wild again.
They’re one of the rare sheep breeds that can be expected to have twins, and they do regularly, without significant complications.
Ewes invariably prove to be excellent mothers, also. Despite being little more at this point than a historical curiosity, Hog Island sheep produce good wool…
Thought to number only around 500 or so sheep today, the last of them were removed from hog Island for conservancy in the 1970s and have been placed at various “living history” farms along the US East Coast. It’s still possible to get some of these sheep for yourself if you want to help bring them back from the brink!
The humorously named and severely endangered Florida Cracker is even older than the hog Island sheep, and has adapted to the extreme heat and humidity of its native Florida for at least four centuries.
Adaptation to dwelling in and around swamps and other wetlands means that, among domestic sheep, these are some of the most parasite-resistant animals you will ever encounter.
They have such borderline impossible levels of vitality that despite being able to genuinely thrive on a crappy diet ewes don’t suffer from common immune deficiencies during pregnancy.
And they can still crank out two lambs a year with no expectation of complications. Absolutely remarkable!
If you want a truly healthy, hardy sheep that is totally adapted to hot, humid climates you could do a whole lot worse than the Florida Cracker.
But if you want one you’ll have to work very quickly and locate a breeder: numbers are slowly increasing, but less than a thousand are thought to still be in private hands at conservancy farms.
A domestic breed of sheep native to the Virgin Islands and named after the island in that chain, the St. Croix is believed to have descended from various sheep of African origin.
According to their lineage and also to the conditions they have lived in, this is another domestic breed suitable for hot, humid weather and also one that is known for its good health and particular resistance to parasites.
The St. Croix is so resistant to critter infestation that parasites they ingest while foraging tend not to survive and reproduce inside their bodies or feces! It has been speculated that St. Croix sheep can actually “clear” pasturage of parasites over time thanks to this unique resistance.
Like many “mutts” the St Croix shows much variation in color and overall build. You can expect some to have solid color while others will have broken colors or even spots, ranging anywhere from tan and brown to white, black, and various combinations thereof.
One of the most striking sheep on our list, the Jacob sheep is immediately recognizable by its four symmetrical horns that grow in two pairs on the head: two growing on the top and curving gently to the rear, and two growing on the sides, curling down and under.
Jacob sheep were first brought to the US in the early 1900s and raised for wool, which has a notably good quality for spinning and making into various articles of clothing.
They’ve garnered niche interest for the particular quality of their meat also, which is said to be exceptionally tender and flavorful. The skulls of these sheep are also of particular interest as specimens, and are invariably preserved when they are slaughtered.
Jacob sheep are currently present in North America and Europe in some numbers, though they’re quite uncommon compared to other domestic breeds.
Notably, the Jacob sheep present in Europe have been improved over time whereas the opposite has occurred in America, where they remain much closer to the historical baseline of the breed.
Another US heritage breed that was left to develop basically entirely on its own, the terribly endangered Santa Cruz sheep was first found off the coast of California on the island of Santa Cruz.
It’s also speculated to have developed over at least two continuous centuries of total isolation.
Although they have since been brought to the mainland, they’re almost entirely unseen outside of California. Research is underway to determine their precise genetic lineage.
These sheep, like the Hog Island and Gulf Coast sheep, are incredibly healthy, have excellent vitality, and are excellent mothers. All Santa Cruz sheep are also able to thrive with basically no attention or care from humans.
Nominally a dual-use breed capable of producing good meat and decent wool, these sheep produce high-quality goods but are small-statured and the yield of both wool and meat is accordingly small.
Nonetheless, if you’re a shepherd that is interested in preserving a living history breed, or want a breed that requires virtually no care whatsoever, the Santa Cruz is a fine choice- assuming, of course, you can find one!
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.