Modern industrial farms favor the handful of selected breeds of sheep, cattle, or whatever they raise, which give maximum output in ultra-controlled environments. Uniformity and predictability are the order of the day. This makes for great business but less great dinners.
This trend has left many heritage breeds of sheep (and other heritage barnyard animals), on the brink of extinction.
The Tunis for example, now listed as rare, these sheep with the creamy wool and reddish face and legs, are one of the oldest breeds in North America. Originally a gift from the Bey of Tunis to the U.S. in 1799, when they mowed the lawn of the White House. (That must have been a trully wonderful sight)
Tunis sheep thrived and reproduced, their meat was in great demand. Unfortunately, during the Civil War when there was a great shortage of food, the Tunis population was decimated.
Katahdin sheep, not as endangered as the Tunis, were originally bred in Maine, especially for meat. They have short hair which does not require shearing.
Like the Tunis (and other heritage breeds), they thrive in forage based management systems and have delicious mild-flavored meat preferred by American palates.
Navajo-Churro descended from the Churra, an ancient Iberian breed brought to North America by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. They were acquired by Native Americans through raids and trading and became an important part of Navajo economy and culture.
It's not that they are endangered because they are delicate breeds, quite the opposite, they are endangered because there has been no demand for them. Not until recently anyway, when people are becoming aware that in their breeding and culling lies their future.
To find a farm growing heritage sheep near you, or to order heritage meats online, browse the LocalHarvest website.