Mary Had a Little Lamb!
© Author Jane Rothert
1st Published in September 2001 Malinois Performer
Sheep, or Ovis Aries, come in many flavors. On the Web, I found 235 breeds of sheep from the Altay of China to the Zoulay of Morocco. Some of these 235 breeds can only be found in their native countries. For every breed never seen in the US or Canada, though, I'm sure we have 10 mixed breeds!
There are two main types of sheep: hair and wool. Hair sheep, as a rule, are lighter sheep than wool sheep, meaning the sheep move quicker from the pressure of a dog and have a smaller flight zone. Hair sheep shed their coat each spring rather than needing to be sheared. Wool sheep are generally heavier than hair sheep and require more pressure from a dog to move.
The breed I'm most familiar with is the Barbado. Often it is called a Barbados Blackbelly, but that is incorrect. In 1904, four Barbados Blackbelly ewes and one ram were brought to Texas and none have been imported since. These five sheep were crossed with moufflon and Rambouillet sheep. The Barbado sheep we see today in North America are all descended from these 5 sheep. Barbado sheep are primarily a hair sheep. Some carry more wool than others, depending on the crosses and how far back wool sheep were introduced into the line. Barbado sheep carry horns and in some places are used for trophy hunting because of the spectacular curved horns on the rams.
Barbado are often seen at herding trials. They are a hardy breed of sheep, reproducing easily and requiring minimal upkeep. They also are a light sheep, moving quickly and freely off of a dog. They do not tend to sour easily when used for herding, but are often considered too light for beginning dogs. A Barbado sheep won't give the dog any help. A well dog-broke Barbado is easy for a dog to work, but if the dog isn't right, the sheep will make dog and handler look rather inept! They are great for pointing out the gaps in a dog's training!
The Katahdin is another hair sheep that is very commonly seen at herding trials or training facilities. Katahdin are hardy, adaptable, low maintenance sheep. They were derived from breeds that originated in the Caribbean and British Islands and developed in the state of Maine in the 1970's. Katahdins are docile so are easily handled and exhibit moderate flocking instinct. The Katahdin is generally a calmer, heavier sheep than the Barbado, have no horns, and are primarily white. Although they are heavier than Barbs, they are not generally considered a heavy sheep. A dog that pushes hard on Katahdins will have the same problem as pushing hard on a Barb, no sheep or sheep bolting away as fast as they can! They are a little more forgiving of a dog and can be more people oriented than a Barb so are fairly commonly used for beginning dogs.
Wool sheep are more common in the "real" world. Wool sheep are bred not only for their wool, which comes in a variety of colors and textures, but also for their meat. With wool sheep you have a wide range of personalities and flocking capabilities. Woollies, as a rule, become quite people oriented and are often used for starting dogs. They can sour quickly, becoming too heavy and possibly aggressive, which is why most people prefer to train dogs with one of the hair breeds.
One of the first rules of thumb I learned when I started herding was to stay away from sheep with black faces. For some reason, wool sheep with black faces are more aggressive than white-faced sheep. The most common breed of black-faced sheep is the Suffolk. The breed, developed in England around 1810, is a large meat sheep with rams weighing up to 350 lbs and ewes weighing up to 250 lbs. The Suffolk is known for their aggression towards dogs. They will willingly take on a dog they feel is weak or, if tired, they will stand and fight any dog. They are big enough to do serious damage to most herding dogs and aren't used often by the herding community. You will still see them at trials and some training facilities, but rarely is this the only breed used. It used to be common to have a Suffolk or Suffolk cross in with 2-4 sheep of another breed at a trial, but even this practice is changing. The Suffolk are fairly heavy, needing to be pushed by the dog, but are quick to challenge the dog and are generally not considered good sheep for beginning dogs. A well-trained dog can usually handle them without a lot of trouble, though.
White-faced wool sheep are fairly common at herding facilities although most trials seem to be leaning more toward the lighter hair breeds. Common breeds or crosses found are Cheviot, Corriedale, Dorset, Polypay, Rambouillet, and Romney. Depending on the area of the country, some breeds are more common than others. Crosses of these and hair sheep are also common. Wool sheep, because they are heavy and love to stick to people's knees, make good sheep for beginning dogs as they stay put and let the handler concentrate on the dog. Unfortunately, because of this, often handlers think their dogs are better trained than they are. Many times the statement heard at trials is "the sheep aren't dog-broke!" This usually means that the sheep the person has been training on are too dog-broke, running the course or at least running to the handler as soon as they see a dog. The dog hasn't learned to cover, rate, or properly work sheep, but the handler thinks the dog is doing a great job. At a trial where the dog must complete an outrun or be in the right place to make the sheep go through an obstacle, the holes in the dog's training start to show.
Woollies are generally larger than hair sheep. Hair sheep are light on their feet and agile and will generally not run into a stationary object. A woolly is big, cumbersome, and if one is heading in your direction, either get out of the way or be prepared to be run over! Working woollies is great, but the handler must be knowledgeable about the breeds being used.
There are a few rare sheep seen occasionally by the herding enthusiast. Shetland sheep are no longer considered rare but are still considered a minority breed. They can be aggressive, but do flock fairly well. If nothing else, their petite size is really cute! The Dorper, a hair sheep from southern Africa, is not common in the US, although some facilities have them and they are gaining in popularity. One of my favorite unusual sheep is the Jacob's sheep. This sheep is a wool sheep named for it's multicolored coat, which is white with black splotches. The coat coloration isn't the only thing unique about a Jacob's sheep. Jacob rams can have as many as six, yes, I said 6, horns! I've not seen a 6-horned ram, but I have worked some with 4 horns. Two grow straight up from the top of the head and can be a couple of feet long. The other two will grow down and curve toward the face.
Every herder has a preference as to what breed or cross they prefer to train with and work. Woollies, as a rule, are heavier than hair sheep but require more upkeep, shearing once or twice a year. Woollies are often used to start dogs and hair sheep are often the ones you'll find at trials. If you only have access to light sheep but want to start a dog, try using a lot of sheep, more than 3-5. The more sheep in a group, the heavier the group gets. As the dog's training progresses, reduce the size of the group he is working. You can get almost the same effect by changing the numbers of sheep as you can by changing the breeds. When you are training a dog for competition, it is a good idea to work as many different breeds of sheep in as many different locations as possible. In this way, the dog will be right at home when he enters the herding trial arena!
If you are interested in learning more about specific breeds of sheep try looking at: http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/sheep/