More than half of the people that see my Persians for the first time mistake them for goats. To a sheep breeder this seems incredibly ignorant but this comment comes because these people look at these sheep through their Australian eyes. For Australians most, or all, of the sheep they have ever seen at shows, on TV and on farms belong to breeds that have wool. Many Australians mistakenly believe that all sheep are like this and indeed have wool. Yet for the majority of people around the world sheep do not have wool and, in fact, for them, sheep with wool are an oddity.
All domestic sheep are descended from the Mouflon, a type of wild sheep still found throughout Europe and Asia. In these original sheep, like all mammals the growth of body hair naturally slows during Spring. Eventually this leads to a break in the hair fibre which in turn leads to the coat, which has grown over the previous year, being lost or shed. Sheep breeds that grow wool have a genetic mutation where this natural break no longer occurs. This means that the hair continues to grow season after season, year after year. This continuously growing hair is called wool. In a wild situation this mutation is harmful. With the coat continuously growing its physical bulk gradually increases. As this process progresses it becomes increasing difficult for the animal to defecate, urinate, breed and eventually eat and even walk. At the same time the animal becomes increasingly vulnerable to fungal, bacterial and insect infections. Without the intervention of man removing the fleece by shearing the animal it will die. In this way wool breeds have become dependent on man to not only stay well but indeed survive. Man has selected this harmful gene in order to harvest the coat or fleece. In many parts of the world, however, this genetic mutation has not been selected and sheep continue to shed their “winter coat” annually each Spring before the onset of the hot weather in Summer.
The view of many Australians that sheep typically have wool is however consistent with the rest of the temperate world. Even in areas where sheep are recognized as being in 2 categories ie wool or hair, many regard hair breeds as simply relics of the past and unsuitable for modern commercial sheep production. In the tropics, however, the sheep world changes considerably. Here sheep have short coats that are shed annually with the seasons and wool sheep are an uncommon curiosity.
Andre Almeida in Tropical Animal Health Production explains another characteristic of hair breeds. “Beside this feature (ie a hair coat ) tropical sheep have a very distinctive and particular trait : the fat tail and / or fat rump, and are generally described as fat –tailed sheep. This morphological feature is characterized by an accumulation of fat mainly at the level of the hind quarters in varied shapes and volumes, and it is assumed to have similar physiological roles as those of the zebu and camel humps.”
Andre further explains “The wide distribution of fat tailed sheep breeds may be explained by one particular trait: adaptability or endurance. In fact, these animals are able to thrive under extremely harsh conditions, they are able to tolerate hot weather, cope with dry environments with low pasture availability, able to walk long distances in search of pastures and drinking water, tolerate diseases and parasites and even have gregarious and defense instincts that enable them to defend the flock from predators like foxes. Such traits make them the selected sheep breed group for extensive production systems in desert or semi –desert areas of the world. In fact they play a very important role in the food security of large populations supplying milk, meat and fat, and also hides, hair for local fabrics and garments, dung for fertilizing or fire and above all, they have an important social role as wealth and status indicators and cash reserve.” What may surprise many Australians is that the distribution of breeds of sheep with hair and fat-tails, such as the Persian, encompasses vast areas of the globe. They are the main sheep of the Middle East and North Africa, Iran, Pakistan, central Asia, China, Mongolia, east and southern Africa and have significant population in export giant Brazil. Interestingly on a recent trip to Zimbabwe ( July 2019 ) I was fortunate enough to chat with one of South Africa’s top 3 Persian breeders, Gielie Oberholster who maintains a flock of 700 to 800 Persian ewes. He explained that whereas in Australia we regard Dorpers as a tough breed, in South Africa they are regarded as a bit soft and are mated back to Persians to make them more robust for the dry hot conditions of northern South Africa. It will be interesting to note over the coming years the impact, if any, that improving Persian genetic in Australia have on the flocks of sheep in central Australia. Hopefully as their numbers increase they will become a more familiar sight to many Australians, and like the rest of the world will not confuse these important animals with goats.