Sunday, February 24, 2008

2008 Florida State Fair: Sheep

I love the fair!

We recently had a chance to travel to the Florida State Fair, and had from mid-morning till mid-afternoon free to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes...a treat!

Since we didn't have any teens with us this year, the midway and its rides were our backdrop, but we weren't there this time to ride any rides. Even with focusing on particular areas of our greatest interests, there was still too much to see and do all in a single day. We didn't even try...we just enjoyed what we could until we had to leave.

Of course, our first beeline was straight to the animal barns. That's where we spent the better part of the day...hooray!

I think different animals are housed at different dates, and we happened along on the dairy cattle show date. There were no beef cattle to be seen at all in the barns, but we had our fill of watching dairy cattle shows, visiting the barns and seeing the animals up close, and seeing TOGETHER what our first impressions were up close and personal. After all, we're very inexperienced with animals other than having done a lot of reading. But more about the cattle in the next post.

The first building we entered, of all the barns, was a barn where they had a mixture of livestock for close viewing (and admiring...and scratching under the chins...) There was a milking stand set up for school kids in one area, and many of the pens featured Dwarf Nigerian goats, a mixture of other goats (dairy and meat), and rows of different cattle breeds...the horned ones off to the side, and gosh those horns were MASSIVE. But smack in the middle of these other pens was a pen of Barbado sheep...some appearing to be crossbreeds and the ram appearing to be standard (I think). There were other sheep in other pens, too, such as the delightful Jacob's sheep (which I also love), and many of the standard breeds. It's funny...being there AMONG many sorts of animals is a pretty good test of just which ones make your heart skip a beat and beat a lot faster than all the others. It was quite a surprise...

I was surprised how much I liked the dairy goats and dwarf goats. I was very drawn to the Jersey fact, I could have happily have staked out a place on a nearby hay bale and communed there for hours, if we'd had hours to commune. And yes, oh yes, I could rouse myself daily at some unearthly hour to milk one, were that opportunity to ever be given me in the future!

What really surprised me was the Barbado sheep, though. The sheep I saw in the pen lacked the uniformly bold markings of Barbados Blackbelly sheep, and these had more variable markings, and the ram had the horns of the American Barbados breed, which is popular especially in Texas ranches.

I've read up on breeds suitable for my area, here in Florida. Much thought is along the lines of "Sheep?? In Florida?? Give it up!" But there are meat sheep farmers who raise St. Croix, Katahdin, St. Augustine, and Barbados Blackbelly sheep here, or crosses such as the above breeds x Dorper. All of the above are haired sheep...sheep with goat-like hair rather than wool fleeces, which is an advantage in the tropical high heat and humidity. There is also said to be a great parasite-resistance and an ability to thrive on variable forage found here. I really don't know anything beyond what I've read, though, and I've yet to see any sheep grazing pastures except for a farm about an hour away that had a few St Croixs or Katahdins. I was realllyyyy hoping there would be a great representation of these breeds at the fair when we went. This barn was just a taste of what I hoped was housed in the Sheep and Goat building farther down the path.

I'd wondered about the Barbados Blackbellies. For some reason, they'd caught my curiosity a lot in my reading, and they are said by some to retain wilder instincts and alertness, making them suitable for a "wild" flock or one closely handled. It seems they don't flock tightly together, though, and they follow a leader rather than are driven as a flock. They've retained a strong mothering ability and are prolific, lambing 2 to 3 lambs on average and coming into heat at any given point yearround. Anyway, they have a leaner frame and more deerlike in appearance, with dark badger-ish black markings. And I reallllyyyyy wanted to see some up close.

When I saw the pen marked "Barbado," I knew I'd found their close relative, the American Barbados. And they were are some pics:

What a lovely pair :) I knew this was not a Barbados Blackbelly because the purebreds are polled, and here was evidence of horns on both mama and baby...and all the other sheep in the pen. The American Barbados are horned. I have no idea if the term "Barbado" is just a looser umbrella term for all the related Barbados-origin variations at large, or if it is something more specific. But I knew I was getting closer to seeing a Blackbelly up close. Here are some more pics of the "Barbado" sheep in the pen:

Hello, fella with the handsome horns! And ooooh, what's curled up next to you? Oh, yes it is...those tiny lambs, snoozing away (And at this point, I had to deliberately try not to squeal loudly in public)

And here is a terrible, blurry, picture of the tiniest of lambs...all curled up next to Dad. I was having serious maternal surges at this point... To put it in perspective, this sheep breed is small, and rather petite in comparison with the standard breeds. They are nearly deerlike, and graceful in appearance. This ram, if he were standing, would have been no taller than most Australian shepherd dogs, or thereabouts. All curled up, he hardly took up any room at all, and though I know he's a ram, he was really docile. Yes, I know not to anthropomorphize, and I know he'd be formidable when in rut. Obviously, here he was on a better day...and these little toy-sized babies were snuggled right up to him, sleeping right through the cacophony of touring school groups and curious onlookers. And they're adorable...

He had a harem of gentle ewes in the same pen, but I couldnt resist peeking at the contented trio.

Ah, this little one just finished snacking at Mom's Milk buffet. I could seriously have sat right in the middle of this sheep tableau happily all the day.

But where were the Blackbellies? My hopes were up...I hadn't expected to find anything close. Later, we made our way to the sheep and goat barn.

There was not a goat in sight, so we concluded that perhaps the goat events were on different days, and we'd lucked upon a sheep day. As we made our way around the sheep barn, we saw a lot of sheep, but none of the pens were marked. Many of the sheep wore wool protective blankets (not sure what they're called), and nearly all the sheep had wool, rather than being haired sheep. In fact, nary a haired sheep was to be seen...and I thought that very odd. But what do I know? I'm the amateur.

The temperature that day was in the low 70s, which made for a perfect day weatherwise. But in the sheep barn, even with the big fans blowing, the un-airconditioned 70s temps found most of the sheep (with their wool coats) looking quite wilted and stressed by heat. But what do I know, being an amateur? Still, I swear they were near to panting.

Many of them were quite large, the size of a small pony compared to the diminuitive sheep we'd just been hanging out with in the other building. At this point, J had had enough sheep bonding, and he found a corner of the building to sit a while and chat with others who were in there looking like we were. I walked up and down the aisles, and I was unmoved...loving being among the animals, but not finding just what I'd hoped to find. Since the pens were not marked, I don't know what breeds I was looking at. I didn't see any haired breeds, but was not sure if the grooming style obscured one type from another, since many were shorn. Would show grooming shear hair off a hair sheep and make it look like the others? I didn't see anything that I thought might be a Katahdin, St. Croix, Jacob's, or Dorper.

I got to the next-to-last aisle, and in the VERY LAST pen saw this:

Whoops, hello!! Wait, could it be?? She had all the markings of a blackbelly!
I think those used to be horns, or else they're scurs, so this is probably not a Barbados Blackbelly, but she has the distinctive blackbelly markings...the badger face, brown haired body, and black underbelly stripe extending up to her tail area. Beautiful! And these pictures do her no justice...she was simply lovely! She had "feminine" features and was very friendly.
The hair was the even texture of a bristle brush, and her muzzle (or nose or snout?) was soft and would fit in the smallest cupped hand (she was very gentle and curious). And the eyes were a dark hazel brown. Ah, I was in love! This picture is a close-up, but it doesnt capture her small size.

I was in serious love. What an exquisite sheep! Her legs were not even as big around as a broom handle, and she looked like she might be expecting (though again, what do I know? I'm an amateur)...but, well, you see what I mean

And another picture, just because :)

And finally I had to go. And say goodbye. Even though I still didn't know the name of the farm or who raises this beautiful animal.

I can't wait till we can have a place for an animal this lovely to graze...

So it was a reluctant goodbye...

...and on to the dairy cattle barn, and the surprises that awaited us there! :)


celkins said...

Hi Robbyn,

I would be happy to talk to you more about Barbados Blackbelly and American Blackbelly sheep. The Barbados Blackbelly is very rare in the U.S. There are fewer than 300 of them, and only a handful of breeders. I established a consortium of these breeders several years ago and we are working hard to restore the breed and conserve the valuable genetics we have. I also host an email group for all blackbelly breeders at and am Webmistress for the Barbados Blackbelly Sheep Association Int'l ( You can learn more about both breeds of sheep at my farm Web site at I hope you decide to raise blackbelly sheep and I'd be happy to help you locate animals of either breed.

Carol Elkins
celkins at critterhaven dot biz

Robbyn said...

Hi Carol! I'm SO delighted you left me this information! I'll surely be in touch in the future with many questions, and I do hope to get your valuable input on sheep when we're closer to actually having a place to put some :)