Sheep on Pasture at Tamarack Vermont Sheep Farm

Development of Modern Sheep

The development of modern sheep traces back to ancient Mesopotamia where the wild muflon, the ancestor of modern sheep, were first believed to be domesticated between 11000 and 9000 BC. These sheep were primarily raised for meat, milk, and skins. Woolly sheep began to be developed around 6000 BC in Iran, and cultures such as the Persians became dependent on sheep’s wool for trading. Domesticated woolly sheep were imported to Africa and Europe via ancient trading routes where breed distinction and differentiation began to take shape.

Through breed improvement efforts, selective breeding and migration via trade, modern breeds began to emerge across Europe and Africa. These breeds were further developed and crossed before being brought to the Americas on the ships of explores and merchants.



Origin : Spain
Population : 2,000 and 5,000 Worldwide
Status : Threatened
Temperament : Active but Docile
Known for : Sweet, lean meat
Facts : The first breed brought to North America.

Flavor Profile : Rich, Earthy, Tangy, Sweet, Mustard Seed, Spicy, Herbaceous, Silky.
Navajo-Churro : The Spanish Churro sheep was first brought to the Americas in the 1500s by the Spanish explores. One of the earliest domesticated animals in the New World, it quickly became integrated in native culture and cuisine. The Navajo-Churro produces excellent wool and meat. It was Navajo women who owned the sheep, the grazing rights and the wool, which was an important source of income. The Navajo-Churro existed in great numbers until the 1860’s when the United States government targeted their populations while at war with the Navajo.

The Navajo-Churro produces meat is lean with a distinctive, sweet flavor. It is rich, hearty and earthy with tangy and spicy notes of mustard seeds.


Origin : Tunisia
Population : 5,000 USA
Status : Rare
Temperament : Docile
Known for : Exceptionally flavored meat
Facts : A favorite breed among our founding fathers.

Flavor Profile : Earthy, Minerally, Buttermilk, Not Lamby, Silky.

Tunis : The Tunis breed originated in Tunisia and is reputed to be more then 3000 years old. Referred to as fat-tailed sheep in the bible, the tail is now smaller but mature ewes still carry the distinctive tail fat the breed is known for. The color ranges from tan to red with the occasional white spot on the head and tail.

A favorite breed among our founding fathers, John Adams mentioned the breed in his diary in 1782 noting its exceptional taste. Thomas Jefferson ordered that a herd be imported from Tunisia because he loved them so much he thought they should be more readily available. George Washington bred them—one of his early legacies was the proliferation of his particular Tunis crossbreed on farms and dinner tables along the east coast. The Tunis is an excellent ambassador breed for the grass-fed movement yet still remains on the Livestock Breed Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List.


Dorset Horn

Origin : England
Population : Less than 2,000 Worldwide
Status : Watch
Temperament : Docile
Known for : Exceptional flavor

Flavor Profile :Olive, Lavendar, Sweet, Round, Lamby, Fresh.
Dorset Horn : The Dorset Horn is a breed of sheep that spread over Dorset, Somerset, Devon, and most of Wales during the 1700’s. Once popular with English aristocracy, the Dorset Horn has seen a steady decrease in population since the inception of industrialized agriculture. Today it is listed as Critically Threatened by the Livestock Conservancy. Dorsets tolerate heat well—heat tolerance contributes to the rams’ ability to breed earlier in the season than rams of other breeds. The Dorset Horn is able to give birth three times a year, which contributes to the Dorsets profitability and appeal for farmers who are familiar with heritage breeds.

Dorset Horn sheep are prized for their lean meat and tenderness.


Origin : America
Population : Between 2,000 and 5,000 Worldwide
Status : Watch
Temperament : Docile
Known for : Balanced, mild flavor
Facts : A haired sheep

Flavor Profile : Savory, Mushroom, Clover, Peppery, Creamy, Woody.

Katahdin : The Katahdin is unique in that it is a hair sheep and lacks the traditional coat of wool that lamb are associated with. Wool production takes time and energy from both the animals and the farmers while only providing 10 percent of the farmer’s income. In addition wool production can create a more pungent and muttony taste in the meat. Katahdins are favored by many farmers for their low maintenance and prized by chefs for their bright and clean taste. The Katahdin breed was first developed by Michael Piel of Abbott, Maine. It is an ideal breed for grass-fed systems and serves land conservation projects well.

Leave a comment