History

St. Croix in the U. S.

Origin

Hair sheep probably came to the Caribbean on slave ships from West Africa in the 1500s, as a food source. They may also be a cross between the Wiltshire Horn and the native Criollo. While their origin remains unclear, less than 2 million hair sheep of various types or breeds are found throughout the Caribbean region today.

Foundation in the U. S.

Michael Piel of Maine first brought one ram and two ewe “Virgin Island White” sheep into the U.S. in the 1960s, for use in the formation of the Katahdin breed. A second importation from the Island of St. Croix (US Virgin Islands) of 22 bred ewes and 3 rams was initiated by Dr. Warren Foote of Utah State University (USU), Logan UT in 1975. This second group of sheep provided the foundation animals for the modern St Croix breed. Selection criteria for these foundation animals included: white coats, average to above-average conformation, average to above-average body size, and lack of horns in both sexes. Small experimental flocks derived from the USU population were established at Florida State University, Clemson University in South Carolina, Cal Poly in Pomona, CA, and several USDA field stations. USU personnel realized the sheep had useful characteristics, and Dr. Foote founded a breed registry in the 1980s.

Identification

Prior to 1983, the breeding at USU was managed as “pasture breeding”, with multiple sires breeding ewes in the flock. Thus, the sire is marked as unknown, or is left blank, on early pedigrees. Sheep identified on early pedigrees as “yellow” and with registration numbers lower than 100 are original imports from St Croix (including lambs born to ewes that were imported pregnant). Five digit numbers (10001, 10008, etc) are either original imports, or offspring of those imports born at Florida State and returned to USU in 1982-83.

Breeding Records

Private individuals who obtained flocks early in the breed’s history include Neil Simpson, Juan Spillet, Mrs. Gibson, and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III. Simpson’s flock registration numbers start in the 100s and he kept excellent records; influential rams of his breeding include Simpson 230 (#594) and Simpson 0062. Spillet obtained his flock from Dr. Homer Ellsworth, who had purchased them from USU. Dr. Ellsworth kept a closed (purebred) flock, but kept no breeding records. Spillet’s records were excellent and registration numbers of his sheep start in the 400s; influential Spillet sheep include the ram USU 884 (#1089), and various sheep in the Menig flock. The pedigrees of Mrs. Gibson’s sheep can be traced 5 generations to purchases from USU, with registration numbers starting at 161. The Gibson sheep were intensively linebred and heavily culled, resulting in a long-lived, productive lineage, including the influential ram HH802T. Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III registered her flock under the Fieldwood farm name. She obtained her sheep directly from USU and kept good breeding records; her purebred flock was dispersed upon her death and some were purchased by North Carolina State University (NCS) (where no breeding records were kept). Influential Rockefeller sheep include ram #4781 (USU 998 (#1336) x Fieldwood 9032 (#1103)).

Flocks Dispersed

Due to funding shortfalls, staff turnover, and changes in research focus, most of the research flocks of St Croix sheep have been dispersed. North Carolina State University dispersed their flock in 1998; some of these sheep were purchased by Stephan Wildeus and some by Linda O’Neill (Milfont). Cal Poly, Clemson University, and Florida State have dispersed their flocks. A decision to disperse the Arkansas and Oklahoma USDA flocks was announced in early 2006. Virginia State University maintains a research flock; the USU flock now consists of about 30 ewes and several rams.

Threatened

The St Croix remains a closed breed; however there have been recent imports of some animals and semen from the Island of St. Croix (USVI). The breed is recognized as threatened by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, with fewer than 1000 registrations per year. No formal census of inbreeding levels or lineages within the breed has been conducted. The breed association has about 120 active members.

Advice

Interested people can refer to established breeders for advice on breed conservation and breeding practices. Also, the resource A Conservation Breeding Handbook, published by the Livestock Conservancy, provides advice specifically on breeding practices for small or endangered populations.

Sources

Much of this information was recorded by Jo Swan from conversations with Dr. Cole Evans, Emeritus Professor, Utah State University, who was Secretary-Registrar of the St Croix Association for many years. Information was also gleaned by Karen Gerhart from various Association members, including Linda O’Neill and Vanessa Harris, from the Association’s Newsletter, and from scientists who have published research on St. Croix sheep.