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This article appeared in the September/October issue of the ALBC newsletter. ALBC members receive 6 bi-monthly newsletters that contain articles about the breeds of livestock and poultry that we work to conserve as well as the people involved in these efforts. Members also receive an annual breeders directory that provides contact information for ALBC members who have breeding stock available, as well a list of products from these breeds that they offer for sale.

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From the November/December 2009 ALBC Newsletter:

Florida Cracker Sheep: One of America’s First Sheep Breeds
By Ralph Michael Wright

Although it is possible that Juan Ponce de Leon brought the first sheep to North America on his second and final voyage in 1521, it is well documented that Pedro Menendez de Aviles brought sheep to Florida when the Spanish founded St. Augustine in 1565. To put that into perspective, a Florida historian once described that by the time the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth Rock, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.

The sheep imported to St. Augustine were Churra sheep which were the common sheep of Spain at the time. The contract with the King of Spain called for 200 cows, 200 horses, 200 pigs, and 400 sheep to be transported to St. Augustine. This and other introductions of livestock from Spain provided the agricultural foundation of America. These animals adapted to Florida’s harsh living conditions, enduring countless hurricanes, wildfires, and tropical storms to become the famous “Cracker” livestock. The almost feral sheep roamed woods and scrub for 450 years until Florida ended the open range at the end of World War II.

Once a year, cow hunters on horseback would round up Florida Cracker sheep for shearing and harvesting of ram lambs. The strength of the breed is reflected in its ability to survive and prosper despite predation by alligators, feral pigs, panthers, bobcats, and black buzzards. Florida Cracker lambs developed a tendency to stay very close to the ewes rather than wandering away and becoming targets for predators. There were attempts to introduce other breeds to “improve” the Florida Cracker sheep, but the introduced sheep quickly succumbed to parasites, heat, and humidity.

Florida Cracker sheep are similar in size to Katahdin sheep. Adult ewes are 100 to 125 pounds. Rams are 125 to 175 pounds. They have white to honey-red, medium grade wool. Some sheep have very dark faces and legs, but black is rarely seen. It is preferred that the head, belly, and tail head have hair. Both sexes are usually polled. They have small, horizontal ears with thick hair which provides insect and sunburn protection.

Some individuals have been involved in the conservation of Florida Cracker sheep for quite some time, but it was not until 2007 that the Florida Cracker Sheep Association was formed. The goal of the association was to make a more concentrated effort to save the breed before it was lost. This breed, one of the first breeds in America, is a valuable resource for those wishing to improve parasite resistance, lamb and ewe behavior, and survivability in their flocks.

One member of the Florida Cracker Sheep Association had good grass in 2006 and half of the ram test lambs (lambs raised under the same conditions to measure performance) gained 25 pounds in 12 weeks during the months of June, July, and August. Of the 40 rams competing in the ram test, which included Wiltshire Horn and Kahtahdin, the five best rib eyes ultra sounded came from pure Florida Native (or Florida Cracker) sheep.

Formerly called Florida Native sheep, the name was changed to Florida Cracker sheep to better reflect their heritage and to differentiate them from other breeds using the name “native”. A statewide census was done to locate and document flocks that might still exist. This census included contacting every county extension office and state laboratory. During the search, one previously undocumented flock was discovered. The flock had existed on a large ranch in South Florida since at least the 1870s. When unforeseen events caused this flock to almost be sent to a livestock market, association members stepped in and purchased the 249 ewes and 20 rams. We are now secure in the knowledge that the five documented bloodlines of Florida Cracker sheep are in the hands of members who are dedicated to the conservation of this important part of Florida’s agricultural heritage.

The Florida Cracker sheep is currently in the “Study” category on the ALBC Conservation Priority List. Breeders of these sheep note differences between them and the Gulf Coast sheep, with which they had previously been grouped as a breed. ALBC is in the process of working with owners to collect hair samples and complete genetic evaluations that will hopefully identify unique genetic characteristics within the Florida Cracker sheep population.

For more information about Florida Cracker sheep contact, the Florida Cracker Sheep Association, 191 SW Beau ford Pl, Lake City, FL 32024-9617, (386) 961-9112, old_cowhunter@yahoo.com.

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