Archived Opinion

Katahdins proving to be great sheep for these mountains

Maybe I’m just self-absorbed, but I swear that when I’m interested in something, it often seems as if the whole world suddenly has become interested in the very same thing.

Given this, it didn’t seem terribly odd that the husband of a former newspaper colleague of mine has developed an intense passion for sheep, as have I. Steve Tabor and I crossed paths at Cagle’s Animal Auction in Waynesville this past weekend. He was there to sell some goat kids; I was there to pick up some replacement hens after losing eight or nine fine layers to a supposed guard dog.

The guard dog, a 150-pound or so Anatolian/Great Pyrenees cross with an adorable personality but a propensity to play dead with chickens (he plays, they get dead), has found a new home in Barbers Orchard in Haywood County with two children and two adults to dote upon him, and where nary a chicken can be found.

Before the chicken and goat parts of the auction, Steve and I fell into a lengthy conversation about the myriad virtues of sheep.

Not just any sheep, however — Katahdin sheep, an American breeding original. Steve, whose farm straddles the Macon-Swain county lines (I worked years ago with his wife, Teresa, at The Franklin Press), has extensive experience raising Boer meat goats. The ease and hardiness of Katahdins have made a convert of him, however, and he’s increasingly phasing out Boer goats in favor of sheep.

Katahdins, Steve told me, have proven almost unbelievably self-reliant. The ewes will go up on the mountain in January and February and drop a perfectly formed, healthy lamb or two, with no trouble and little fuss, wandering back one fine day with little lamb(s) in tow. Unlike his Boers, Katahdins are proving resistant to parasites and they rarely need their hooves trimmed.  I’ll add they have excellent heat tolerance; the tails don’t need docking and, best of all in these days of low wool prices and widespread lack of general sheep shearing know-how, Katahdins are hair sheep — they never need shearing. Additionally, Katahdins require minimal, or no, shelter.

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A fellow in Maine developed the Katahdin breed. In accounts of his work posted on Katahdin Hair Sheep International’s website and the animal science department at Oklahoma State University’s website, the man Steve and I can thank for these wonderful sheep is the late Michael Piel, an amateur geneticist and livestock enthusiast.

Initially, Piel wanted to raise sheep to graze power lines, but developed more expansive ideas about using them for land management. In 1956-1957, he saw photographs in a National Geographic magazine of West African hair sheep, and had some imported to Maine (there’s where the heat tolerance most likely came from — West Africa, that is, not Maine).  

Piel began playing with crosses, using a variety of breed combinations. He selected for hair coat, meat-type conformation, fertility and flocking instinct. Piel picked out the best ewes and named them after Mount Katahdin in Maine. For years, he continued tinkering with his breeding program, improving the size, among other things, by using some sheep from Whales.

A Vermont couple named Paul and Margaret Jepson get an important mention in the story of Katahdins. The Jepsons bought some sheep from Piel in the mid-1970s, adding St. Croix hair sheep into the mix.

As the years passed, Katahdins enjoyed increasing popularity, and are now frequently spotted here in Western North Carolina.

I’m helping tend a few Katahdins in Sylva with dreams of finding some pastureland soon to expand the flock. In my experience (which is limited) and Steve’s (rely on him more on this subject, as his knowledge of Katahdins is more extensive), this breed of sheep is simply terrific on our mountain pastures.

The recommendation I’ve seen, by the way, is three-to-five head per acre. But, if you are willing to feed, you probably could push that recommendation some — though once you feed, if this is a for-profit enterprise, you’re going to start flipping income into outgo pretty quickly.

I give mine a bit of feed, even this time of year, because this serves as an enticement and makes them easier to handle. Because the pasture here is poor, I’m still putting down hay each day. Steve, who has a better setup for sheep, isn’t forced to feed hay now that his pastures have greened up. I think he said he uses a small amount of feed simply to ensure some control.

I also put out a mineral block for the sheep. A note of caution: Make sure, if you have goats, the sheep can’t get to goat-specific minerals — sheep accumulate copper in their livers, which can be toxic for them. On the other hand, if you feed goats sheep-specific minerals only, you set them up, in turn, for possible copper deficiencies.

All aflame now for Katahdins after reading this far, and you want to join in noticing them as you motor about the countryside? Look for sheep that appear kind of patchy, at least this time of year, because the Katahdins are shedding excess hair following the winter.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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