Monday, December 30, 2013

Sheep Stories - Volume 2

In Volume 1 of Sheep Stories I talked about the old landraces of sheep. Nowadays, these are rather rare. Most sheep on the planet today are "modern" sheep of the long-tailed variety. Here's what I've learned about them.

These sheep came along later, in the Roman times, from Southern Europe. They are larger animals which have been long subject to “modern” breeding programs that selected for very specific traits. In most of the world, these modern breeds have displaced the older short-tailed or “heirloom” varieties. There are hundreds of officially recognized breeds of long-tailed sheep, and many of them originated in Britain. They vary in size, but are much bigger than the short-tailed cousins – about 80-100 kg and 85cm tall at the shoulder.

Breeds are selected for:
  • One of: meat, hides, wool, or milk OR a dual-purpose breed (usually meat/wool)
  •  Fleece colour (most desirable = white, as this can be dyed)
  •  Fleece characteristics (length of hair, hair diameter, crimpiness of hair)
  •  Type of countryside in which it can flourish (ex. “hill” or “mountain” breed vs. “lowland” breed, especially in the UK). Different breeds have different tolerances to wet, dry, cold, or hot environments.
More than 50% of wool-bearing sheep today are of so-called “fine wool” breeds, with fleece of ~20 micron diameter with good crimp. They are best suited for semi-arid regions but don’t do well in wetter areas like New Zealand or Canada's West Coast.  Fine fleece gives wonderfully soft and fine yarns, but does not stand up to abrasion well. The best-known sheep breed of this category is the Merino, which originated in Spain as a meat sheep in the 1300’s and was refined by them into a fine-wool breed.  The breed was again improved by the Australians starting in the 1800’s, who concentrated on the wool for export. Most of the sheep in the US are Rambouillet, which is related to the Merino. Fine wool is mostly used now for high-end, luxury wool suiting, but is also starting to be used for knitwear and craft yarns because the wool is easily available and because consumers can be taught that "softness" is a quality that they should pay premium prices for (over and above qualities like durability or warmth).

 [Merino sheep - a fine wool breed]

Then there are the so-called “longwool” breeds, which have very long hairs (15 cm or longer) that is very shiny, but not as fine as merino (and hence not as soft). Most of the breeds originated in Medieval times for England’s worsted wool industry, and are now raised in the UK, New Zealand, and the Falklands.  The yarns are glossy, can be spun with low twist and take dye very well. The wool is used for gabardine and suit fabrics.