Likely descendants of Spanish colonial flocks, Gulf Coast Native sheep—also known as Gulf Coast sheep, Woods sheep, Louisiana Native sheep, and Florida Native sheep—are one of the oldest breeds in North America. Prior to World War II, thousands roamed feral in the American South country-side. Twice a year, farmers would round them up, shear them, tag any new lambs, and select a few for meat before releasing the herd back into the rugged pastures.
Thanks to a muggy habitat, the breed evolved to tolerate high temperatures (hence their bare faces, legs, and bellies). Their most desirable trait, however, is resistance to common parasites, such as roundworm and foot rot (a bacterial infection in the hoof). Hoping to foster that hardiness among future generations, farmers began cross-breeding Gulf Coast Natives with their own flocks. Sadly, this genetic mixing eventually led to the breed’s endangerment. (A post-WWII focus on livestock that yielded high amounts of meat, wool, and/or milk was also a factor—Gulf Coast sheep are fairly small, don’t produce much milk, and are not as woolly as other breeds.)
While current owners of Gulf Coast Native sheep are passionate about preserving the animals, they’re scarce. It’s estimated that fewer than two-dozen breeders remain in the United States, including Melody Hartsell of Hartsell Farms in Salisbury, N.C., who calls the decline of her preferred breed “unfortunate.”
Appearance and Temperament
The look of Gulf Coast Native sheep varies geographically; there are multiple distinctive flocks in Texas, Alabama, Florida, and North Carolina. They range in color from cream to brown to black, and may be spotted. They are polled (hornless), horned, or scurred (have partially developed horns). Typically rams weigh 125 to 200 pounds; ewes clock in between 90 and 160. Both sexes average 30 to 48 inches tall. Their wool is also noticeably softer than that of other breeds.
Gulf Coast Natives breed nearly year-round, lambing about three times within 18 months. Given their wild origins, the sheep are fairly independent and may be wary of people, Hartsell says—especially when lambs are separated from their mothers.
“If they decide that they don’t want to be around you, they won’t be around you,” she says. While standoffish, flocks aren’t void of personality. “They express an entire range of emotions that any person can relate to,” says Ellen Hogan of North Florida Craftworks, who raises Gulf Coast Natives in Trenton, Fla. “They are smart, intuitive, gentle, and personable.”
With an above-average lactose content, Gulf Coast sheep milk is exceptionally sweet. “It is rich, with a capital ‘R,’ and delicious,” Hogan says. The milk may become even sweeter with dietary tweaks. “Our girls are on a pasture with blackberry bushes and native grasses,” Hogan continues. “The blackberries give the milk a real boost.” The trade-off: an extremely low milk yield—generally, ewes produce just enough to feed their young.
“I milked my ewes by hand, and I would allow a lamb to nurse on the opposite side while I milked,” says Sarah Green, a former owner of Gulf Coast Native sheep based in Connecticut. “It was a very calm experience for all. (Since) I did not separate mother and lamb, my yield was (extra) low, maybe a quarter cup per ewe per milking.”