Know your indigenous livestock: Sheep

Indigenous sheep breeds play crucial roles in livelihoods of low income households in Africa. They are owned by most of smallholder rural farmers in low potential areas where it is difficult to undertake other forms of agriculture. This is because they require low initial capital investment, small land acreage and minimal labor which can be provided by family members. Moreover, indigenous sheep have the ability to withstand harsh climatic conditions and utilize wide variety of feed resources. As small ruminants, they also have a short generation interval and high reproductive rate which translates to high production efficiency.

Despite the numerous advantages, these indigenous breeds face the threat of extinction posed by importation of exotic breeds and continuous crossbreeding programs. Thus, there is a need for strategies to conserve this unique genetic resource which is important today and will continue to be important in the future.

1. Zulu sheep

Native to southern Africa, the Zulu sheep looks similar to a goat and has meat that is savory, flavorful, and lean. Agile and of mediumsmall size, the sheep is characterized by small ears and a multi-colored coat made of hair, not wool. The sheep stores large deposits of fats in its tail and body, which are essential to its survival in an area that is a hot, drought-prone region. The breed is hardy and can therefore resist many tick-borne diseases, allowing them to survive without the expensive medications that many other sheep breeds need. They are currently used as a source of income, food and rituals. Regrettably, the breed is on the verge of extinction due to replacement by imported breeds.

2. Red Maasai Sheep

Red Maasai are an East African fat-tailed hair sheep used for meat production. They are found in northern Tanzania, south central Kenya, and Uganda. Males are either horned or polled and females are usually polled. Red Maasai are known for being resistant to internal parasites such as haemonchus. Though mainly owned by the Maasai pastoralists, similar sheep are owned by many other tribes in Kenya (e.g the Nandi, Luhya), northern and central Tanzania (e.g. Gogo), and the drier parts of Uganda (e.g. the Karamoja). The sheep are found in altitude ranging from 500 to 1500 m in semi-arid climatic conditions with bimodal rainfall. They are reared in either pastoral or agro-pastoral production systems.

3. West African Dwarf sheep

This is the dominant sheep breed in southwest to central Africa ,primarily raised for meat. The West African Dwarf is generally mottled (black on white). However, skewbald (tan on white) and the black belly patterns are found. Rams have a well developed throat ruff, are horned and weigh about 37kg. Ewes are usually polled and weigh about 25kg. On average, ewes produce 1.15 to 1.50 lambs per lambing. This breed grows slowly with overall growth rates of 74, 49 and 34 g/day from 0–90, 91–150 and 151–350 days old, respectively. This breed is also highly tolerant to trypanosome.

4. Uda sheep

The Uda is an example of African long-legged sheep common in Chad, Niger, northern Cameroon, and northern Nigeria. There are several varieties of Uda sheep. Normally the front half of Uda sheep is brown or black and the back half white. The Uda is generally raised for its meat. The ewes are usually polled while male are horned.

5. Malawi sheep

A fat-tailed hair sheep similar to the Red Maasai sheep mainly found in Malawi. It is characterized by a hairy coat which has a shade of red, sometimes black, occasionally pied. The ears of the breed have medium lop. Animals are normally polled and have a straight fat tail extending to the hocks


6. Black headed Somali

This breed originally inhabited the drier areas of southern Africa and further north, particularly Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and even Ghana. The breed’s natural habitat is the semi-arid and arid areas, but can also be found in wetter areas where the comparative advantages it enjoys in dry areas are lost. The breed is characterized by a fat rump and the black head. The breed is polled although scurs also occur. The ears are very short to moderately long. The breed underwent improvement in South Africa emerging with a broad deep and reasonably long body with broad withers, a thick neck of good proportion to body; straight back and prominent chest standing out vertically; well developed and freely hanging dewlap; tail comprises three parts: the first broad and firm unhanging and untapering portion close to the rump; the second part that is curved upwards and rests against the centre of the first, tapers towards apex and shows a clean black skin area; the third portion that hangs from the apex of the second, is 5-8 cm long and curved with short smooth hair.

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