Jacob Sheep

Figure 1. Ebenezer, our Jacob ram. Note the undocked and unsheared tail.
A heritage livestock breed, Jacob sheep are somewhat rare in North America, but they definitely turn heads. Perhaps its their vivid white and dark brown colouring, small stature, or somewhat goat-like personality. Maybe, but we think it's due to the fact that they can have anywhere from two to six horns. The males especially have robust horns that can be quite intimidating when one has to share a paddock with a ram during breeding season. The horns definitely make effective tools of demolition when it comes to shelters and may have contributed to the fact that we've had no predation losses. Apparently, Jacob wool is sought after by hand-spinners. We've been unable to confirm this as we haven't made an effort to sell our fleeces just yet.

We've found our Jacob lambs to grow quite well on pasture. A Shetland-Jacob cross has done particularly well and is as large as her mother at 7 months. We generally give our flocks access to new pasture every few days in the spring, slowing down to every two weeks by late summer. Naturally, whether we move them often or rarely, we make sure that they have enough pasture for their stay. This seems to have contributed to good growth which was made clear to us when we bought a ram- and ewe-lamb from another Jacob owner. Our lambs were much larger than the lambs we bought. This may have been due to their lack of pasture (we are lucky enough to have much more pasture than necessary), parasitism (we've had no problems), or because we are suckers and give our sheep a small grain ration during late pregnancy and lactation. In any case, we're rather proud of the fact.

For sheep, Jacobs tend to be on the curious side. All of our Jacobs approach to within a couple of paces, with some individuals perfectly content to nuzzle right up to us. A Soay-Jacob wether in our flock is much more skittish than his full-blooded Jacob pasture-mates and keeps a good distance at all times. Careful and calm handling, enabled by proper equipment and a sheep dog, can make a big difference with how sheep perceive their handlers. We always notice increased fear after any handling (eg. for hoof-trimming), but less so in our Jacobs.

Jacob horns offer some challenges. Horns sometimes curl back into the face of the sheep, making it necessary for a trim twice a year. This is a relatively simple operation, but is one more thing that needs doing. When buying lambs after weaning, we've been able to select individuals with open horns (nearly straight and growing out, away from the head). This may make unfortunately curled horns a less common occurrence in our future. Horns also make it more difficult to construct hay feeders, since any feeder requiring a sheep to stick its head through a hole won't work with widely swept Jacob horns. We've come up with one solution that we are refining (and will detail here on the site). If a ram has a gift for demolition, horns will be used as a deconstruction tool, making sturdily built (ie. more expensive in time and money) shelter a necessity. One of our rams makes deconstruction a pastime, but another doesn't find the the pursuit compelling. Our hope is that we will have no need to keep destructive rams in the future, but for now our choice is limited. Horns have both the advantage and disadvantage that they are effective weapons. Ebeneser (pictured in Figure 1) is crowned with some fairly massive and long horns and knows how to use them. Mostly, they are a tool to make sure that he gets first choice of hay, grain, water, bedding space, and anything else that his little sheep heart desires. Any sheep he shares a paddock will get the occasional smack. This seems to bother us more than it bothers them, but all things being equal, we'd rather Ebeneser toned it down. A Jacob ram won't necessarily limit his use of horns to sheep either. I've certainly had my knuckles rapped a few times and Ebeneser has snuck behind me and wacked my rear-end on occasion. (The knuckle raps hurt a lot more than a wack to the rear.) This really isn't much of an issue because Jacobs are fairly small and, to an observant shephard,  a sheeps intentions are plain to see. Besides, with most rams, aggression is limited to breeding season. In our climate, breeding season means warm clothing, which offers some protection from horned attackers. An advantage to Jacobs' armaments is that they may offer some protection from predation. We haven't experienced any sheep predation to date and believe their horns may offer some explanation. Our dog certainly developed respect for our sheep after receiving a good rap from a protective Jacob ewe with twin lambs. She keeps her distance now. A last advantage of horns is that some folk actually find them so interesting that they will buy a Jacob ram with the intention of mounting the head. This can quadruple the value of an otherwise mediocre ram to well over $1500.

In addition to horns, Jacobs have mottled wool. Just like horns, mottled wool can be capitalized on. An intact Jacob fleece can have higher value to hand-spinners or other wool craftspeople than a similar quality all white or black fleece. Having a choice of natural wool colours in a single fleece is a convenience and novelty to some. Another potentially lucrative advantage to Jacobs' mottled colouring is that tanned hides have more visual interest than all-white or all-black hides. We are exploring how to best tan sheep-skin and are exploring markets for the finished product.

As with many heritage breeds, Jacobs do not grow as large or as quickly as their modern counter-parts. Jacob carcasses will not dress out as large as for "normal" sheep. For a backyard operation meant for home use, this is a small issue. For a commercial operation aimed at producing meat, it would probably make Jacobs ill-suited. On the flip-side, we've quite enjoyed Jacob lamb and found it just as tasty as lamb had at (expensive) Greek restaurants.