Rare Sheep Breeds

When a sheep breed has a drastically low breeding population, it is deemed rare. Different organizations have their own criteria for determining the rarity of a sheep breed. The Livestock Conservancy considers the breed’s status to be critical if there are less than 2000 members in its global population, while the Rare Breeds Survival Trust does the same if there are fewer than 300 females capable of breeding.

Why Do Some Sheep Breeds Become Rare

  • Limited Range Some sheep are limited to specific locations, restricting their growth. This also means that a disaster can severely dent the population. For instance, the Balwen Welsh Mountain is restricted to Tywi Valley in Wales. In the harsh European winter of 1946-47, the Tywi Valley was badly affected, nearly wiping out the breed.
  • Competition with other sheep Sheep breeds that are less productive than others are reared less often. If a breed produces less wool, meat, or milk than another breed under the same conditions, it is less suitable for commercial purposes. This was observed in the case of the Dorset Down, which was initially reared as a meat breed and became less favored when the more productive Suffolk originated.
  • Increased Preference for Synthetic Fibers Rearing sheep for wool can be labor-intensive due to the difficulty of mechanizing the shearing process. The rise of synthetic alternatives further diluted the demand for natural wool. For example, the Border Leicester, once prized for its wool used in carpet manufacturing, declined in the 20th century as synthetic fibers became more common.
Rare Sheep Breeds

List of Rare Sheep Breeds

BreedStatusWhere Are They FoundOriginal Purpose
Santa CruzCritical, less than 200 leftUS (California)Wool
North RonaldsayCritical, less than 600 breeding femalesScotland Meat and wool
Navajo-ChurroCriticalUSWool, milk, pelts, and meat
Gulf CoastCriticalUS (Texas, Louisiana, Florida)Wool
Hog IslandCriticalUS (Virginia)Wool
Welsh Mountain PedigreeCriticalEnglandMeat
LincolnCriticalEngland, US, Australia, New Zealand, and CanadaWool
Whitefaced WoodlandCriticalEnglandMeat
Florida CrackerCriticalUS (Florida)Meat and wool
TeeswaterAt risk (UK), Critical (US)UK, USMeat
Balwen Welsh MountainAt riskWales (Tywi Valley)Meat
Dorset HornAt riskUK, Australia, New Zealand, North America and South AfricaWool
Border LeicesterAt riskAustralia and UKWool
CotswoldAt riskUK and USMeat and wool
California Variegated Mutant/RomeldaleAt riskUSWool
SoayAt riskUKMeat and wool
KarakulAt riskCentral Asia, North America, and NamibiaPelts
Derbyshire GritstoneAt riskEngland (Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, & Yorkshire)Meat
BorerayAt riskScotlandConservation grazing
Devon and Cornwall LongwoolAt riskSouthwest EnglandWool 
Castlemilk MooritAt riskScotlandHobby farming
Leicester LongwoolAt riskUS, Australia, New Zealand, England, and SwedenWool
Devon ClosewoolAt riskEngland (North Devon)Meat
Manx LoaghtanAt riskIsle of Man, UK, and JerseyMeat and wool
Dorset DownAt riskUK, North and South America, Australia, and New ZealandMeat
Hill RadnorAt riskUK (Powys, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire)Meat
Whiteface DartmoorAt riskSouthwest EnglandMeat
Oxford DownAt riskEurope and North AmericaMeat
Norfolk HornAt riskEngland (Norfolk)Meat
WensleydaleAt riskEngland, also the rest of Europe, and the USWool
LlanwenogAt riskUKMeat
PortlandAt riskEnglandMeat
LonkAt riskEngland (Lancashire,Yorkshire)Meat and wool
Torwen Badger Face Welsh Mountain At riskWalesMeat

Effective conservation programs have helped many at risk sheep breeds. For instance, the Shetland Sheep has recovered and is no longer endangered. Interestingly, while breeds like the Clun Forest and the Jacob are recovering in their native country — England — they remain threatened in places they were imported to, such as the United States.

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