Use: It is incredibly convenient to care for American Blackbelly sheep and needs no shearing or tail docking. As a breed of hair sheep, they are often more resistant to worms than wool breeds and are mostly raised without deworming or vaccination pills. (Parasite management should be consulted by a veterinarian.) Ewes lamb does well on lower-quality forage without assistance. They’re a good choice for new sheep keepers for these reasons. Moreover, rams are coveted by trophy hunters and game ranchers with excellent racks of horns. American Blackbellies produce a very lean and mild carcass primarily of meat sheep, popular with ethnic and grassfed, all-natural niche markets.
History: American Blackbelly sheep are a hybrid breed formed by crossing the Mouflon and the Rambouillet with the Barbados Blackbelly. The cross occurred because breeders wanted to increase the size of the tiny Barbados Blackbelly’s carcass, and they wanted a rack of horns for the rams. The cross was called Barbado or Corsican. It did not increase the size of the carcass, but it produced spectacular horns on the ram, allowing it to be the first sheep added to Texas’ 1976 trophy book for hunters. There was a lot of confusion between American Blackbelly sheep and Barbados Blackbelly sheep, to the point that Barbados Blackbelly sheep nearly became extinct in the U.S. because the purebred name persisted in calling them people raising American Blackbelly sheep. The Barbados Blackbelly Sheep Association International created a separate breed standard in 2004 and described animals meeting this standard as “American Blackbelly,” acknowledging that the word “Barbado” did not sufficiently describe the characteristics that breeders sought.
Conformation: It is one of the most exotic-looking sheep breeds in the U.S. because of the American Blackbelly sheep’s black facial bars and striking black belly and leg markings. Ewes at the withers are 24 to 28 inches tall on average; rams are 30 to 32 inches on average. Ewes weigh 75 to 95 pounds at maturity; rams weigh from 110 to 140 pounds. The rams, with curls of 30 inches or greater in the more mature sheep, are noted for their huge rack of horns. American Blackbelly sheep have a coat of fur (not wool), with the option of developing a woolly undercoat that sheds in the spring in colder climates. The coat colour may range from light fawn to reddish brown, but except for the occasional white tip on the tail, it should not have any white on it. Rams may exhibit a lighter-colored “saddle” because of the Mouflon heritage of the sheep.
Special Considerations/Notes: Unlike most wooled sheep breeds, blackbelly shep is bred year-round. At 4 months, they are fertile and occasionally twin. While they are a slow-growing breed of sheep, at times of the year they lamb twice in 18 months, corresponding to market demands for lamb meat.
American Blackbelly sheep are relatively cheap, and shepherd’s expenses would be minimal because shearing or high-quality forage is not needed for the breed. As they startle quickly and jump like deer, the sheep can be a challenge to manage. They’ll easily get used to the farm’s routine with gentle and patient handling.