Although the origins of the Jacob sheep are unknown, there
is historical documentation of spotted sheep in the Middle East, Far East and
Mediterranean from three thousand years ago. These sheep were named after
Jacob, a shepherd from the book of Genesis in the Bible, who bred spotted
sheep. In England, the Jacob was originally referred to as the Spanish Sheep.
Legend has it that the sheep washed ashore from shipwrecks in England after the
destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It is also believed that the horns
were acquired through breeding with the Viking sheep either while they were in
Spain or after their arrival in England. As early as the 1600’s spotted sheep
were found in England. Not considered to have commercial value, the Jacobs were
kept on large estates as ornamental or “park sheep”.
The United States and Canada started importing Jacob Sheep
in the early 1900’s. These sheep were popular with hand spinners and weavers
for their unique multi-colored fleece. These sheep were bred for their color
and subsequently maintained the body conformation of the earlier breed
descriptions. At the same time, in Britain the Jacob sheep were selectively
bred for increased body size for meat production. Today, Jacob sheep in North
America and Jacob sheep in Britain are very different animals.
Piebald (spotted) and the polycerate trait (multi-horned)
are the distinctive characteristics that set the Jacob apart from other sheep.
Both the ewes and rams have horns. They can have 2, 4 or even 6 horns. Jacob
are the most recognizable sheep breed. They are a primitive, unimproved breed
with a small lean body. They have a medium fleece and single coat instead of a
typical primitive breed double coated fleece. They are a hardy and healthy
sheep that require minimal care. They are great mothers and have easy births. The
easy births are due to the body conformation of the ancient Jacobs’ more
sloping hindquarters. Selective breeding to increase body mass and increase leg
muscle changes the slope of the back and sacrifices easy births.
Jacob Sheep produce a single coat open fleece. This medium
grade fleece has an average staple length of 4-6 inches and a micron count
between 25-35. The fleece weight range
is 3-6 lbs and has a yield between 50%-65%. The wool has very little lanolin
and has a springy feel. The most
remarkable part of the fleece is the multi-colored spots. The fleeces are
predominately white with colored spots. The spots are brown, black or a blended
color referred to as lilac. The skin color on the Jacob is the same as the
color is grows, so their skin is actually spotted as well. The fleeces can be
separated by color to create several different colored yarns from a single
fleece. The staple length and texture of the colored spots can vary from the
white wool. Most of the Jacob wool in England is sorted by color and
Jacob Sheep in the News
Possibly the most fascinating fact about Jacob sheep is the
connection between them and a fatal disease in children called Tay-Sachs
Disease. Tay-Sachs Disease is a disorder that destroys nerve cells in the brain
and the spinal cord. The life expectancy of a child diagnosed is only 4 years
old. Research shows that Jacob Sheep are prone to this disease as well. Doctors,
geneticists, and Jacob sheep ranchers have come together in this common cause
of finding a cure for both children and lambs. You can read more about this
amazing research here: http://ntsad-ny.org/news-research-sheep.html.