The older breed of domesticated sheep may be the Karakul. Archeological evidence suggests that the Persian lambskin existed as early as 1400 B.C. In ancient Babylonian temples, carvings of a distinct type of Karakul were found. The Karakul, while known as the “fur” sheep, offered more than the young lambs’ beautifully patterned silky pelts. They were also a source of milk, meat, tallow, and wool, felt into cloth or woven into carpeting, a strong fibre.
Karakul is native to Central Asia and is named after a village in the valley of the Amu Darja River in the former emirate of Bokhara, West Turkestan, called Karakul. This region is a high altitude region with sparse desert vegetation and a small supply of water. A rough life imparted to the breed a hardness and ability to survive under difficult circumstances, which to this day is special to the Karakul sheep.
Karakuls were introduced to the U.S. for pelt production between 1908 and 1929. Very few animals have been produced. U.S. breeders introduced other races into the bloodlines through their eagerness to produce a significant quantity of pelts. This produced inferior quality pelts and the industry and the flocks were gradually dispersed. The demand for furs led to the crossing and intermingling of native fat-tailed sheep even in their native regions, so that the native flocks show large variations in form and colour. This lack of uniformity is obvious. Except in those Karakuls that are capable of raising lambs of high quality fur, body and fleece styles differ.
With an increasing interest in fibre arts in the United States, the interest in the Karakul sheep has increased. As part of the cottage industry, it is a specialty breed that is finding its niche. The fleece is evident in a range of natural colours. The colours are named by the following names in their native region; Arabi (black), Guligas (pink-roan), Kambar (brown), Shirazi (grey) and Sur (agouti). Individuals are white or pied rarely. This is partly due to its different uses: fur, fleece, and meat, along with hardiness and adaptability characteristics. There are tiny farm flocks spread throughout the United States today.
The Karakul characteristics
They have been given good and enduring teeth, a secret to their survival, by the harsh conditions in which they have evolved. They are immune to foot rot and internal parasites. They are excellent foragers when adapting to good feed and care and can go through a season of scarce food or graze poor land on which ordinary sheep will not survive. Karakuls can survive hot or cold extremes, but they should have access to dry cover and be kept away from marshy pastures.
Karakuls breed out of season, making it possible in two years for three crops of lamb. Single lambs, while twins are born occasionally, are the norm.
The ewes, resulting in a high lamb survival rate, are very protective and attentive mothers. There is a good flocking instinct in the Karakuls and it can be run either on open range or in fenced pastures. They do not herd well; a dog attempting to herd them is likely to disperse or fight them.
The Karakuls vary dramatically from many other breeds in conformation. They are of the sheep’s fat broadtailed kind. Fat, a source of nourishment, is stored in their large tail, similar in function to the camel’s hump. Below this fat sack, the narrow appendage is always recurved, giving a S shape. Karakuls are sheep of medium-size size. The weight of the rams ranges from 175-225 pounds to 100-150 pounds for the ewes. They are tall, with long, slender legs. With the rump long and sloping, the top line is highest at the loin, blending into a low broadtail set. The head is narrow and long, slightly indented between the eyes and sometimes shows a nose of the Roman kind. The long ears are often pointed downward and slightly forward and differ, or may be completely absent, from a long U shape to a small V shape. The long neck would be semi-erect. The legs are medium to long, and the bones are light. Rams may be polled or horned; horns range from small to wide spirals that are bent outwardly. Generally, Ewes are hornless. Wattles aren’t rare.
The Karakul is characterised by its coloured fleece, caused by a dominant black gene. Most lambs with lustrous wavy curls are born coal black, with the face, ears, and legs usually showing smooth, sleek fur. The curls open and lose their pattern as the lamb grows, and the colour normally starts to turn brownish or bluish grey, becoming grayer with age. Other colours include a broad selection of shades; a wide range of shades include silver blues, greys, golden tans, reddish browns, white with flecks of other colours; silver blues, greys, golden tans, reddish browns, white with flecks of other colours, and sometimes pure white. A double cap, a fine down undercoat, is hidden by a coat of guard hair for many adults. The best have a fleece that’s as shiny as their coat of lamb. But in the fleece form of both coats, from “horse tail” coarse to silky smooth, there is a great variability. The Karakul produces a light, high-volume, powerful fibre fleece that is long and lustrous at its peak, usually without crimps. The fleece lacks a high fat content when considered long-stapled (average 6″ to 12″ per year). It gets spun quickly, with little planning. It produces a superior yam carpet, is also used for rugs and saddle blankets, wall-hangings and outer garments, and has an outstanding felting capacity. It is the wool that the art of felting has evolved from.
The American List of Karakul Sheep
The Sheep List of the American Karakul is a roster of the U.S. Karakuls to the degree that the Karakul breeders endorse it. It has developed from the Karakul Fur Sheep Registry, founded in the 1930s, as an organisation and is now recognised as the national registry for the breed. It is open to all breeders of Karakuls standard. Its aims are to provide a recording service, to work in the Karakuls towards a high quality standard and to encourage and thereby conserve the breed in the U.S. In the United States, the Karakul is considered an endangered breed and will most likely remain so; it is estimated that the total population is 1300 animals. Large flocks, especially in Central Asia and South Africa, are still to be found outside the U.S. All existing U.S. stock is inherited from the initial import and government regulations prohibit the import of new bloodlines. The intention is to upgrade the current stock to a pure Karakul form with selective breeding.