Appalachia’s Very Own Sheep Breed is Quickly Becoming the World’s Most Popular

PHOTO: Katahdin Hair Sheep, Appalachian Magazine.
PHOTO: Katahdin Hair Sheep, Appalachian Magazine.

It’s hard to imagine in today’s “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” America, but once upon a time not too long ago, the United States was sheep country.

Early colonists actually preferred sheep over cattle for a number of reasons: The ancient animals matured far more rapidly than their bovine counterparts, they consumed less food, breeding rates were more than double that of cattle, and you could wear them without having to kill them!

In addition to all of these points, early ship captains found it considerably easier to transport twenty head of sheep across the ocean as compared to twenty cows.

Still, it wasn’t until 1609 that a permanent flock of sheep was established in the New World.  This is because Virginia colonists slaughtered all of the original shipment from 1607 during the starving period.

In two decades time, however, the Virginia flock of 234 sheep had expanded to 400 and by the 1640s there were about 100,000 head of sheep in the 13 colonies, and in 1662, a woolen mill was built in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Unfortunately, sheep presented several downsides to New World leaders, including being very susceptible to prey.  To counter this, colonists cleared numerous islands off the Atlantic coast of all predators and declared the land to be sheep sanctuaries: Nantucket, Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard and small islands in Boston Harbor were notable examples.

Even today, some 400 years later, there remain some rare breeds of American sheep—such as the Hog Island sheep—that were the result of island flocks.

Fueled by what seemed like an endless expanse of land, the American wool industry quickly propelled itself to an international stage, leading the British government to ban all export of sheep to the Americas, or wool from it, in an attempt to stifle any threat to the wool trade in the British Isles.

Colonists, especially those from the Northeast, resented these measures and the trade restriction is one of the many little-known reasons the colonists revolted against Britain.

Over the next century and a half, American sheep production continued to soar and the animals could be spotted on just about every farm and ranch in the land, even on the White House lawn.

PHOTO: Sheep on the South Lawn of the White House, c. 1914.
PHOTO: Sheep on the South Lawn of the White House, c. 1914.

In 1945 the number of sheep in North America grew to more than 56 million, equating to about 1 sheep per 3 US citizens.

As the fifties raced into the sixties and the Baby Boomers became parents themselves, America’s economy roared to life as a flood of new workers also became new consumers.

Soon, there was a chicken in every pot and a beef in every freezer, but not a sheep to be found in any portion of the kitchen.  Lamb chops and mutton had become a taste that reminded Americans of the dreadfully dark and fearful war years — a taste most would just assume to never relive again.

Eventually, the animals fell from the American diet almost completely.

Making matters even worse for the American sheep industry was the invention of synthetic fibers which lined and insulated jackets in the same manner wool had been doing for generations in America.  And just like that – Americans had no real use for sheep any longer. Their tastes brought back bad memories and the fashion powers that be determined that wool was out.

By 2003, the number of sheep in the land had dwindled from the 1945-high of 56 million (1 sheep per 3 citizens) to 7 million (1 sheep per 50 citizens).

Fast-forward a decade and a half and the America we know is in the midst of massive demographic changes and farmers say they are noticing a rapidly increasing demand for sheep from individuals who have immigrated into the nation — so much so that many longtime cattle farmers are giving up on cows and becoming shepherds.  And just what is the preferred breed of these newcomer sheep raisers?  A breed developed in the Appalachian Mountains of central Maine, the Katahdin Hair Sheep.

In the decades following World War II, farmer Michael Piel, who was described as “an innovator and ‘amateur geneticist’” would begin a lifelong quest to develop a breed of sheep that would not need to be sheared and was highly resistant to parasites.

His wife later wrote, “From the time Michael was in high school and had a small flock of Suffolks, he was fascinated by sheep, their history and management. When he moved to Maine after World War II, he raised Corriedales and Columbias, but the market for wool set him thinking about a meat sheep that wouldn’t need shearing. If the grower wanted to concentrate on the lamb market, he had no choice but to grow wool as well; so he began research and correspondence to firm up his ideas on how to produce a meat sheep.”

According to Katahdin Hair Sheep International, “Piel imported ‘African Hair Sheep,’ as they were called then, to Maine from St. Croix in November 1957. All were less than a year of age, born triplets, unrelated for many generations, and wool-less with wool-less siblings. One female was tan in color, the others were white. The ram lamb, ‘King Tut,’was used for breeding a handful of ewes in December 1957, including Tunis, Southdown, Hampshire, Suffolk, and the ‘African’ ewe lambs. From this point on, crosses of many breed combinations (including Cheviots and other ‘Down’ breeds), were made as Piel tried to determine what would create the type of ewe he was looking for. He was particularly selecting for hair coat, meat-type conformation, high fertility, and flocking instinct.”

Over the next two decades the Appalachian farmer would continue to breed various combinations of the offspring of that first set of imports.

Sadly, Piel would never live to see his breed of super-meat, wool less hair sheep reach the final step, as he died suddenly of a heart attach in December 1976.

In the years ahead, numerous individuals and organizations would take interest in the work of the amateur geneticist and in 1985 Katahdin Hair Sheep International was incorporated as a breeders’ association and registry by Piel Farm, Heifer Project, and Donald Williams.

The first inspection of animals for the original registry flock book was conducted in 1986 by Stan Musgrave, an animal scientist from Maine familiar with the Piel flock. The first KHSI members were accepted in 1987, and twenty-three breeders agreed to join KHSI and register their Katahdin stock.

As the nation finds itself at what seems to be a resurgence in its demand for sheep, the farmers of Katahdin breed stand ready, confident that the time has come for their breed of sheep developed in the Appalachian Mountains.

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