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    Gulf Coast Native Sheep — Winter 2013 | Out Here Magazine

    Hardy breed adapted to the Deep South’s heat, humidity, and parasites

    Billy Frank Brown
    Billy Frank Brown's Gulf Coast Natives are diverse; some are white, some black, some have horns, some don't.
    Out Here

    By Jeannette Beranger

    Photography by Jeannette Beranger

    Among the oldest of the domestic breeds developed in America during the Colonial Period is the Gulf Coast Native sheep, descended from the Spanish flocks brought to help settle the New World by explorers in the 1500s.

    Spanish missionaries, Native Americans, and European settlers used Gulf Coast sheep across the Southeast as far north as the Carolinas. These animals were shaped primarily by natural selection, becoming well adapted to the region’s heat and humidity.

    They fit their challenging environment so well that for centuries they were the only sheep to be found in the Deep South, providing wool and meat for home production. Development of anti-parasite medications in the mid-1900s allowed the introduction of other, more productive sheep breeds into the region and Gulf Coast Natives slowly were discarded by most farmers for “improved” sheep.

    Consequently, Gulf Coast Natives, one of America’s most longstanding breeds, is now categorized as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) on its Conservation Priority List. ALBC uses this list to bring attention to livestock breeds, such as the Gulf Native, to connect them with people interested in saving a rare breed.

    The breed was saved from extinction through the action of a few Southern families, such as the Brown family, of Poplarville, Miss., whose traditions included these animals for generations. They maintain a flock of more than 100 sheep and keep the breed on their family land to graze alongside their Pineywoods cattle, another old breed of the South. Jess Brown and his father, Billy Frank, take turns spending each day tending to the flock.

    For more information on Gulf Coast Native sheep and other endangered breeds visit albc-usa.org.

    Gulf Coast sheep are best known for being highly resistant to intestinal parasites and foot rot. They are especially resistant to bloodworm infestation, the leading factor limiting sheep production in the South. Some producers are turning to this historic breed as they recognize that it is a more sustainable and less-intensive option for sheep breeding in the South.

    Gulf Coast sheep are relatively small and lack wool on their faces, legs, and bellies as an adaptation to the heat and humidity of the South.

    They make excellent mothers and lamb on pasture without assistance. As adults, the rams can weigh 125–200 pounds and the ewes 90–160 pounds. Although a small sheep by most standards, the breed does not lack in quality for the table. They have a mild but tasteful flavor, even when harvested as an adult well over a year old.

    For consumers put off by “muttony” taste associated with many sheep, this breed will be a delightful surprise. ALBC has been working with chefs in the South to rediscover this important historic breed and to help find its place back on the Southern table.

    Though the breed is critically endangered, with a population of less than 2,000, it has become more stable in recent years, thanks to interest groups of owners, including the Gulf Coast Sheep Breeders Association and the Coastal South Native Flock Alliance. However, it still is in need of new stewards.

    For small-scale farming in the South, the Gulf Coast Native is a great choice for challenging areas where other breeds would perish without intense management.

    Jeannette Beranger is the ALBC’s Research & Technical Programs Manager.

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