The origin and history of St. Croix Hair Sheep is somewhat vague. We know they are a landrace breed of domestic sheep native to the Caribbean island of St. Croix. They originated in the early 16th century, when Spanish explorers and slave ships brought sheep to the Caribbean islands for food and wool production. There is evidence to suggest that St. Croix sheep have West African and Spanish Churra ancestry. Over time, the sheep on St. Croix evolved to become well-adapted to the island’s harsh conditions, including high temperatures, tropical storms, and limited vegetation.
First Import to the Continental U.S.A.
In 1957, after seeing a photo (Figure 1) in National Geographic Magazine, Michael Piel imported the first Virgin Islands sheep to help him develop a new breed of hair sheep; the Katahdin. Of the three sheep he imported, “one female was tan in color, the others were white” (KHSI). While Piel did not breed more of those sheep, his work piqued the interest of other researchers.
The sheep on St. Croix island in 1956 shown in Figure 1 closely resemble the St. Croix Hair Sheep found in flocks today. While most are white, some are tan, have black around their eyes, or have large patches of white and brown (Figure 2 – Mason). Even though white is the predominant color of this breed, some pure St. Croix sheep are born with varying amounts of brown or black. In fact, there are multiple sources that mention the natural occurrence of color among pure Virgin Islands White/St. Croix Hair sheep (Mason, Scofield & Allmon, KHSI, Bactawar, Hupp & Deller).
Foundation in the U.S.A.
Dr. Warren Foote imported 22 bred ewes and 3 rams from the Virgin Islands in 1975 and took them to Utah State University for further study. Dr. Foote selected sheep that were white and polled, had above average conformation and body size, and lacked horns. Only sheep that conformed to this standard were kept for breeding purposes.
In 1976, USU divided a group of approximately 30 ewes into 3 groups. One group went to Charles Parker at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, one to Phillip Loggins at the University of Florida in Gainseville, and the third remained in Utah with Dr. Foote. Additionally, several rams were sent to Ohio and Florida.
In 1978, 5 rams and 3 ewes went to California State Polytechnic University in Pomona for research conducted by Edward Nelson. In 1979, 3 rams were sent to Texas A&M University in San Angelo for crossbreeding research by Maurice Shelton.
Several years later, they split the research flock into smaller groups and sent sheep to Florida State University, Clemson University in South Carolina, and several USDA field stations. This import and the descendant flocks eventually established the St. Croix Hair Sheep as a breed in the continental U.S.A. USU personnel realized the sheep had useful characteristics, and Dr. Foote founded a breed registry in the 1980s. In 1997, Charles Bedinger imported close to fifty sheep in cooperation with Ag World Exports and several breeders on the island of St. Croix.
Early Identification Methods
Prior to 1983, USU managed the flock using “pasture breeding”, with multiple sires breeding ewes in the flock. This explains why 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.
Early 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. Gibson intensively linebred and culled her sheep, 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 heirs dispersed her purebred flock upon her death and North Carolina State University purchased some (NCS) (where no breeding records were kept). Influential Rockefeller sheep include ram #4781 (USU 998 (#1336) x Fieldwood 9032 (#1103)).
Some Research Flocks Dispersed While New Ones Emerge
Due to funding shortfalls, staff turnover, and changes in research focus, some of the research flocks of St. Croix sheep have been dispersed. North Carolina State University dispersed their flock in 1998; Stephan Wildeus and Linda O’Neill (Milfont) each purchased some of these sheep. Cal Poly, Clemson University, Florida State, Utah State, and the Arkansas and Oklahoma USDA Research Stations have all dispersed their flocks. North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, the University of the Virgin Islands, Utah State University, Virginia State University, and Virginia Tech still have research flocks as of 2023. They continue to study these sheep to better understand their immune system, parasite resistance, and reproductive traits.
Back on the Islands
The Virgin Islands White (St. Croix Hair) sheep still exist on the island of St. Croix. However, the numbers of purebred sheep is unknown, because many flocks have incorporated Dorper sheep into their breeding programs. Importation of live animals or even frozen semen/embryos is difficult and expensive, so we cannot assume anyone will make further efforts to do so. Some speculate that more of these sheep are now in the continental United States than on the island. However, the University of the Virgin Islands maintains a flock for research and educational purposes.
Bactawar, Basil. “Characteristics and General Production Parameters of Hair Sheep Breeds.” IFAS Extension University of Florida, accessed 2/21/2023, https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/duval/agriculture-and-agribusiness-management/livestock-and-poultry/sheep/sheep-breeds/.
Foote, Warren C. “The St. Croix Sheep in the United States.” Hair Sheep of Western Africa and the Americas: A Genetic Resource for the Tropics, edited by H. A. Fitzhugh and G. E. Bradford, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1983, pp. 275-287.
Hupp, Harold, and Duke Deller. “Virgin Islands White Hair Sheep.” Hair Sheep of Western Africa and the Americas: A Genetic Resource for the Tropics, edited by H. A. Fitzhugh and G. E. Bradford, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1983, pp. 171–175.
KHSI. “Breed Origin and History.” Katahdin Hair Sheep International, accessed 02/21/2023, https://katahdins.org/about/about-history/.
Mason, I.L. “White Virgin Island Sheep.” FAO Animal Production and Health Paper 17. Prolific Tropical Sheep, edited by I. L. Mason, FAO, Rome, 1980, pp. 29-32. https://www.fao.org/3/x6517e/X6517E02.htm#ch2.2
Oklahoma State University. “St. Croix Sheep.” Breeds of Livestock, accessed 2/20/2023, https://breeds.okstate.edu/sheep/st-croix-sheep.html?Forwarded=afs.okstate.edu/breeds/sheep/stcroix/index.html.
Scofield, John, and Charles Allmon. “Virgin Islands: Tropical Playland, U.S.A.” National Geographic Magazine, Feb. 1956, pp. 201–232.
Swan, Jo. Notes about history from conversations with Dr. Cole Evans, Emeritus Professor, Utah State University, and Secretary-Registrar of the St Croix Association, Karen Gerhart based on her interactions with Linda O’Neill and Vanessa Harris. circa 2015.