Featured Breed: Natural Colored Sheep
“Natural Colored” is not a breed, of course⎯Festival visitors will see many different breeds of sheep that are not white on the fairgrounds. Here’s their story.
Since sheep were domesticated 10,000 years ago, humans have selected and bred ovines not only to adapt and thrive in every climate humans have—from boreal to temperate to tropical to arid—but have selected for traits that were deemed most useful, such as fleece color. For many domesticated breeds, that has meant selection for white fleeces, which can be dyed any color, and selection against natural color.
Many breed associations don’t allow for the registration of natural colored sheep—the presence of colored fiber in fleeces that are commercially processed devalues the entire clip.
The past 45 years has seen a resurgence of interest in the broad range of natural colors still harbored in the genetics of many breeds, from the primitive and dual-coated breeds to long-, medium- and fine-wool breeds.
Many shepherds share an appreciation for that diversity, and have coaxed out the beautiful expression of those genes in their flocks, for the enjoyment of fiber enthusiasts who spin, weave, and felt with the natural colors (and over-dye them to create beautiful, heathered knits and fabrics).
The Natural Colored Wool Growers Association was founded in 1977 to support and promote exceptional natural colored fleeces and the sheep that grow them, and it lists 56 breeds that have colored individuals registered. NCWGA provides sheep breeders with a way to register and exhibit their animals, and encourages continued improvement in fleece and animal quality.
Visit us in the Featured Breed Showcase Tent at the Festival, and keep an eye out for special events of interest to natural colored fiber aficionados, both shepherds and artists!