Lamb Breed Histories and Heritage Lamb Taste Chart
It’s hard not to respect a breed that was referenced numerous times in the Bible (see fat-tailed sheep) and is reputed to be 3000 years old. It’s even harder to imagine the Tunis not being completely delicious since the first three U.S. presidents raised and consumed them.
John Adams mentioned the breed in his diary in 1782 when the Tunis had an excellent reputation for delicious mutton — and tail (not sold today!). Thomas Jefferson ordered the importation of a second herd 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 tail is now smaller and the color ranges from tan-to-red with the occasional white spot on the head and tail. Ewes usually birth twins although the Tunis still remains on the ALBC-USA.org Conservation Priority List. The Tunis is an excellent ambassador breed for the grass-fed movement – they don’t like to eat a lot of grain.
The Dorset Horn is a breed of sheep that spread over Dorset, Somerset, Devon, and most of Wales. In 1750 this is the breed the English with a fine palate would eat for Christmas! Today we eat it more frequently because the Dorset Horn is able to give birth three times a year. Dorsets tolerate heat well, and heat tolerance contributes to the rams’ ability to breed earlier in the season than rams of other breeds. This contributes to the Dorset Horn being a very profitable sheep to grow although it remains on the Threatened List of the ALBC-USA.org website.
The Hudson Bay Company first shipped the Dorset Horn to America in the 1860s. But it was a livestock show in Chicago a few years later that made it famous. The Dorset Horn is known for its healthy appetite and thrives on the lush pastures of Vermont where Ben Machin and Grace Bowmer raise a herd.
The Katahdin is inextricably linked to Michael Piel of Abbott, Maine who had the brilliant idea of separating out the wool producing side of the lamb business from the meat side. Wool production took time and energy from both the animals and the farmers while only providing about 10 percent of the farmer’s income. In addition wool creates a more pungent and muttony taste in the meat.
Piel imported three hair sheep from the Virgin Islands and bred them with various breeds like Tunis and Suffolk in an effort to produce a sheep that excels in taste. The result of the crossbreeding efforts finally produced a flock so perfect that it became the foundation for a herd and eventually the Katahdin breed that is raised around the country. Piel named it after a mountain in Maine even though the breed excels in hotter climates. The Katahdin is known to live a long time while remaining productive. There are now a couple of hundred U.S. breeders of the Katahdin including our very own Chris Wilson of Clover Creek who has worked with us for almost a decade.
The Katahdin serves land conservation projects very well and are perfect for grass-fed systems like that found in Northeastern Tennessee where Chris has won awards for land conservation.
The Churro was perhaps the first domesticated animal in the Americas when the Spanish brought it here in the 1500s. The animal quickly became a big part of Hispanic and Native American ways of life. One of the few positive legacies of Spanish conquerors was the lamb breeds they left here, especially at missions, as they searched for gold. It was these very sheep that the Navajo and other Native Americans stole and purchased making them a part of their way of life and diet.
The Navajo-Churro produces excellent wool and meat. It was Navajo women who owned the sheep, the grazing rights and the wool, which became an important source of income. The Navajo-Churro existed in great numbers here until the government killed off most of the population in their war with Native Americans. The breed currently sits on the Threatened List of the ALBC-USA.org website.
Today many of the residents of the Navajo reservation continue to raise sheep for wool and food. Dr. Lyle McNeal played a crucial role in increasing their population in the 1970s despite the fact that conditions in that part of the country are harsh.
The Katahdin/White Dorper is a crossbreed bred by Joseph Hubbard at Shannon Creek Ranch in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The Dorper has a lot more muscle than the Katahdin. Combined you get a meaty carcass with the mild taste of the Katahdin.
Heritage Foods USA consideres the Flint Hills to be the best terroir for grass-fed animal farming in the U.S. The Flint Hills are band of hills that stretches from eastern Kansas into north-central Oklahoma, extending from Marshall and Washington Counties in Kansas in the north, to Cowley County in Kansas and Kay and Osage Counties in Oklahoma in the south.
Anywhere tallgrass grows makes for a great and sus-tainable terroir for grass-fed sheep, but what makes the Flint Hills our number-one choice is that it boasts the most dense cover-age of intact tallgrass prairie in North America and has blossomed into a mosaic of independent family farms— many of which are at the heart of the heritage breed movement.
Tallgrass is the food the prairie produces naturally in the absence of intensive row-crop agriculture. Unlike corn, tallgrass is not dependent on petrochemical fertilizer or herbicide, and its roots run deep below the thin layer of topsoil. It is potent, incredibly resilient, the all-you-can-eat salad bar for healthy sheep. And they love it, gladly eating pounds of the stuff every day.
The result of this robust food supply is a meat with a nice even ratio of intra- and extramuscular fat, a clean taste, a natural delight. It is the taste of the Americas.
Varietals like Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass, Prairie Dropseed, and Sideoats Grama have stalks whose profound roots are able to pull moisture and nutrients from deep within the ground, making them the best candidates to withstand the drought and deluge likely to accompany climate change. They are resistant to all types of extreme weather, and they bounce back quickly, even from fires. And they do not rely on the dwindling power of the thin layer of topsoil to grow.