Thursday, August 2, 2012

Meet the Sheep: Louise and Lillian

By: Allison Shelly, Farm Programs Intern
Over the past couple of months I have had the opportuity to be a Farm Programs Intern, and one of my favorite things to do is watch our sheep on the farm. While on hot days they lay in the shade keeping cool, on milder days you’ll find them lazily grazing, the lambs jumping and playing. Look closely and you might notice that the sheep in our flock don’t all look the same. In fact, there are three different breeds of sheep in our flock, and each has very distinctive features as well as a unique history.

The one breed that is perhaps the most obviously different from the others is the Tunis sheep. These sheep have reddish colored heads and legs with cream or white colored wool. When the lambs are young they have a reddish tinge all over, but as they grow their wool changes to the same creamy white color of their mothers. As with many animal breeds the Tunis sheep did not originate in the United States. They were transported from their home country of Tunisia in North Africa when the Consul to Tunisia sent a number of Tunis sheep (also called Barbary or Mountain Tunis sheep)  to the United States in 1799. It was a tough journey for the sheep, and only one pair survived. They were sent to Judge Richard Peters, who resided near Philadelphia. He soon became an advocate for these sheep, and the breed spread quickly through Pennsylvania, and up into New York, though the majority of the breed spread south down to South Carolina.
Lillian (on the right) and Louise (on the left) are the two Tunis sheep on our farmstead. In the middle is Louise's lamb, born this spring. This ewe lamb is a Tunis-Cheviot mix. Learn more about Cheviot's in the next sheep post!
It soon became apparent that the Tunis sheep were an excellent and  well-rounded breed, providing top quality mutton as well as decent wool. Tunis mutton dominated the Philadelphia market, and while Tunis wool was not as high quality as Merino wool, it often used to make blankets. Even Thomas Jefferson had a few Tunis imported and bred them for the quality of the meat as well as for the wool.

Tunis sheep are very hardy and can handle both hot and cold weather relatively well. This was one reason that the Tunis became one of the more popular sheep breeds to raise in southern states. During the Civil War the breed was nearly wiped out, eaten by hungry soliders on both sides. If it wasn’t for the actions of Maynard Spigener from South Carolina the breed may not have survived. He hid the last flock of Tunis sheep on his property by the Congoree River and managed to preserve the breed! Even today the Tunis are listed in the watch list of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, meaning that less than 2,500 Tunis sheep are registered in the United States. After the Civil War the breed was mostly found in the northern states, though recently the breed has been making a comeback in the southern states as well.
A close up of Louise and her ewe lamb. 
While the Tunis sheep may not have been one of the most popular sheep breeds to have an upstate New York farm in the 1840’s, it was one of the options a farmer would have had. This is why you can come out this summer to meet our two lovely Tunis ewes, Louise and Lillian as well as their quickly growing lambs! Maybe they’ll wander up to the fence so you can see, and appreciate this historic sheep breed.

Stay tuned for more information about the other sheep in our flock!    

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