By Leslie Johnson
The ancestors of the American Karakul surpassed all other sheep in terms of their contribution to mankind. One of the oldest sheep breeds in the world, Karakul Persian lambskins were enormously valued by royalty for their distinct and lustrous black curls. Their strong, radiant wool was woven into treasured Persian carpets. Both were bartered and traded over ancient caravan trails and trading centers throughout Asia.
Contrastingly, Karakuls were the key to the survival of the nomadic people of deserts and mountains of central Asia, providing near self-sufficiency of meat, milk, and wool for clothing and shelter, as Karakul is believed to be the breed with which the art of felt making originated.
In a region of high altitude, scant vegetation, and limited water, the Karakul developed to be uniquely hardy, producing fur pelts highly valued through the ages. Historical records of Karakul sheep date back to at least 1400 BC, and carving in ancient Babylonian temples indicate their early existence. So valued were these sheep that governments imposed strict restrictions on their export.
When interest developed for an American lambskin market, securing Karakuls for the U.S. seemed impossible, with export bans, a 1200-mile journey across the desert to the nearest port, a long ocean voyage, and navigating government regulations and quarantines, and yet incredibly, 87 Karakul imports arrived in America between 1908 through 1927, the foundation for an emerging Persian lamb fur industry and the development of the American Karakul.
The Karakul Handbook by Lowry Hagerman was published by the Karakul Fur Sheep Registry in 1951. It states, “The Karakul, in its native home, was a type rather than a definite breed in the ‘purebred’ sense. There was no registry and no pedigrees nor records kept. The few Karakuls imported did not breed altogether uniformly nor always true to type. In order to increase numbers, some ewes of other blood were bred to Karakul rams, and the female offspring top crossed until a sheep producing good fur was obtained.”
Accordingly, the American Karakul is likely to carry genes of Lincoln, Cotswold, Tunis, Navajo-Churro, and others, resulting in wide variations in body type and fleece characteristics, similar to what the Karakul experienced in their native flocks.
In a paper published in 1917, early American breeders said, “The Karakul is able to reach as high as a cow, which enables it to eat the seed-bearing parts of the weeds and brush. There are 500 weeds in the US, and the Karakul eat most of them.” And ”To the point of hardiness, no domestic animal in America can compete with the Karakul except the burro and the Mexican goat.”
Once of major economic importance, furs fell out of fashion in the mid-1950s, the collapse of the fur market ending outlets for lamb pelts in the U.S. Many flocks were sold off while other breeders continued with their flocks based on the American Karakul’s other attributes and adaptabilities, particularly their hardiness.
As interest in fiber arts, spinning, weaving and felting arose, a cottage industry began to grow in the late 70’s, and Karakuls were sought out. The American Karakul is a true black sheep, with a dominant gene for black wool that is resistant to bleaching by the sun, highly prized by spinners. When black Karakul rams were bred to other breeds, they could quickly produce black fleece in offspring. As the colored wool industry moved forward, spinners looked to a greater variety of softer wools, and the long, coarser wool of the American Karakuls fell out of favor.
The newest interest in the Karakul is its large tail. As America’s population changed with more ethnic groups seeking the meat of the sheep from their native countries, the American Karakul was one of the only fat sheep in the U.S. Imports of eggs and semen of other fat tail breeds use American Karakuls as the first-generation upgrade to develop a fat tail for this new emerging lamb market.
Highly adaptable, the American Karakul’s attributes shift to the desires of their shepherds. As priorities change, the American Karakul has proven useful in other ways, ideal for sustainable livestock systems valued for low input management. Breeders have improved desired traits such as larger animals, specialty wool types, improved twinning rates, enlarged tails, and increased milk yields.
Table of Contents
American Karakul Characteristics
True Karakul traits are so unique to the breed that they continue to persist in spite of the influx of outside influences, with a rather wide definition and distinctive characteristics that make them quite different from other sheep breeds in North America today.
• Lustrous, tight curls of the lamb birth coat is one of the most distinctive, as no other sheep produces this.
• Large, fat tail that stores fat, similar in function to the camel’s hump
• Topline is not straight; rather it is highest at the shoulders and hips, sloping to blend into a low set tail
• Wattles are sometimes present.
- Hardy, adaptable, thriving under rugged conditions in a variety of climates
- Attentive and fiercely protective mothers with a high lamb survival rate
- Longer gestation, 154 days, almost a week longer than 147 days for other sheep breeds
- Parasite and hoof rot resistant
- Out of season breeders, capable of 3 lambing crops in two years
- Double coated fleece
- Low fleece weights with high yields
While not considered a mutton type of sheep, the Karakul meat is lean and of excellent texture and flavor, considered a delicacy by many ethnic groups. The fat in the tail has been compared to butter or bacon fat.
Though the milk yield of American Karakul is not high, it is naturally sweet and high in fat, between 7% to 8%. When used to make cheese, butter, and yogurt, it provides a smooth, creamy texture.
The American Karakul has a wide variability in the fleece type, exhibiting different lengths, textures, and handle even within individual flocks. The soft birth coat of the Karakul matures into a fleece of carpet wool.
Adult wool can vary in extremes. Some have a double coat with fine, soft inner fibers and long, lustrous outer locks ranging from horsetail coarse to silky soft. They can also vary to different degrees of balance between the inner fibers and outer coat. Others are single-coated, consisting of just long, wavy locks. The adult fleece is lightweight, high volume, and lacks a high grease content with little or no crimp.
A sheep’s fleece weighs 5-10 pounds, yield 80-85 percent
The diameter of the Karakul fiber falls between 25-36 microns, with the undercoat differing from the outer coat in the same fleece.
Karakul is long stapled, growing 6-12 inches annually.
Karakul locks are open and lustrous with wide bases gently tapering to the tips.
Black is the dominant color of Karakuls, though browns and red tones, with roans and shades of white, are also produced. The wool can be a solid color or display shades of color within the staple. Most Karakuls are darkest in color at birth and lighten with age.
Karakul fibers take up dye color well.
Karakul wool is easily spun with little preparation. It is strong and resilient, most suitable for rugs, blankets, and durable outerwear
American Karakul wool is ideal as it felts quickly, forming a sturdy, dense fabric.
Average size: the American Karakul is considered a medium size sheep. The rams will weigh between 175-225 pounds; the ewes range from 100-150 pounds.
Head: long, narrow, and sharply defined, indented between forehead and nose. It should be covered with glossy hair.
Ears: great diversity in ear size, ranging from point downward and slightly forward and varying from a long U shape to a small V shape, or can be only an inch long, which is considered “earless.”
Horns: Rams can be polled or have fully developed curled horns. Ewes generally are polled but can have scurs or small horns.
Wattles: not common but can be present, often inadvertently removed during shearing.
Neck: long and arched, carried semi-erect.
Body: long, narrow, the highest point at the loin, sloping angularly at the rump and blending into a low set broad tail.
Legs: long, straight, fine to medium boned, covered in lustrous hair.
Tail: size may vary; the fatty development should be confined to the upper part of the tail with fatty development on each side and around the tailbone. The fat should not extend to the lower tail, or into the rump and thighs. The lower tail should be slender and join in a straight or S shape and is sometimes docked.
What is the Temperament of an American Karakul?
What do American Karakul breeders say about their sheep? Karakuls tend to be easy-care animals, tough as nails, problem-free, self-reliant, low input, with strong survival instincts and personality. Additionally, they note a noble bearing, possessing beauty, athletic elegance, and spirit. And there are those that say they are a rowdy bunch, headstrong, and wilder than other sheep.
Get along with humans
Trust with American Karakuls must be earned. If they are comfortable with their shepherd, then there are far fewer problems. They are independent and always on alert, especially when their routine is changed; their response to surprises does not always go well. Their intelligence makes them easy to train. Time spent halter training young lambs will pay off throughout their life.
Generally quiet, Karakuls like a routine, particularly when it comes to feeding time. All will chime in, an almost deafening barrage, if feed does not come at the time of their expectation. While good mothers, as lambs grow older, they or their mothers can be stubborn in responding immediately to each other’s calls, leading to long, loud wails until one gives in to find the other. Rams can deliver a thunderous bang when butting heads in dominance establishment.
Get along with other animals
Karakul are self-sorting. They get accustomed to their group and tend to band together. When new Karakuls are introduced, it can take some time for the new ones to integrate. Bringing in another breed of sheep or goats, the Karakul will allow shared shelter and feed space but continually tend to isolate themselves from the others in resting areas and pastures. Once acclimated to the movement and behaviors of various poultry, Karakuls settle into a pattern of acceptance.
Rams are protective of their flock and will clash with other rams or anything they feel threatened by. One should not turn their back on even the gentlest of rams. They need room, and they need companionship; solitary confinement can lead to aggression issues.
Caring for American Karakul
American Karakuls are aggressive grazers and browsers and do well on marginal lands that will not support other sheep. They respond to care and good feed of ordinary livestock grains and roughages.
American Karakuls thrive in hot, dry climates, adapted to arid regions subjected to wide ranges in temperature where both heat or cold stress may be encountered. They tolerate the cold better than other sheep, even the small lambs, but they should have dry sheds free from drafts for protection during storms and kept out of marshy pastures. Their preference is to be fed outside, and they do well lambing in the open barnyard or field.
In areas with higher rainfall, it is best if sheep have access to dry shelter, as Karakul wool is more vulnerable to felted tips resulting from the sheep shaking excess water from their fleeces. They need more frequent shearing, at least twice a year, to prevent matting of the fleece.
While American Karakuls possess a strong flocking instinct, they do not herd well. They are likely to scatter or fight the dog trying to herd them. They are easily trained with a feed bucket.
American Karakuls are targets for large predators and roaming canines. The best defense is a good perimeter fence, built to keep predators out more than keeping sheep in. Karakuls do well with guardian animals, which is essential for protection in open-range situations.
While resistant to internal parasites and hoof rot, they can be susceptible to common sheep health issues. They need to be vaccinated as recommended for other sheep, though an isolated farm flock may require less than for sheep that travel to shows. Check with the local veterinarian for best practices.
American Karakuls have strong teeth, which is key to their longevity. Well-cared-for adult ewes can continue to be productive well into their teens.
Selling Products from American Karakul
Generally speaking, sales from American Karakul products are best when focusing on a specialty market, as normal channels for lambs and wool are heavily discounted in standard markets. The Livestock Conservancy’s Shave Em to Save Em provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase American Karakul fiber goods to prospective fiber artists. Sheep and wool festivals are also excellent places to make contact with prospective buyers.
With flocks spread out all across the country, Karakul and fat tail sheep Facebook groups may provide the best place to “meet” breeders, although selling animals on Facebook is not allowed.
If properly managed, quality American Karakul fleeces can be sold at a premium. Karakul wool can be value-added by sending it to a fiber mill to be turned into roving, batts, yarn, and prefelts. Some even make products such as rugs. When wool is processed, there is a reduction in weight in the finished product, and shipping costs are involved. By learning a wool craft, spinning, weaving, knitting, or felting, one may sell wool to students, or create appropriate wool products to sell directly to the public.
The Karakul carcass does not fit the standard for packers. There are ethnic buyers who want Karakul meat. Some want to purchase the live animal and butcher it on-site, others take it with them, and yet others will want it to be processed in a certified facility. Decide on which way works best for your operation.
Karakuls pelts are now more of a decorative item, with a small market; the open fleece does not provide the health benefits of an average sheepskin.
Buying and Selling Pets or Breeding Stock
For the buyer, it is important to remember not all American Karakuls are the same. Different breeders have selectively bred for different traits. As a buyer, think about the expectation that you have and your purpose for the purchase. Look for breeders that share your vision.
Registered does not translate as quality, only that the breeder has kept a pedigree, and it is only as good as the integrity of the person filling out the paperwork. Be patient with the new stock, give them time to settle in, and familiarize themselves with the new place and routine.
As a seller, it takes time to build a good reputation. Always be forthright with the information you convey to prospective buyers. Let them tell you what they are looking for, and be honest in your ability and your stock to meet their desires. New shepherds may need some hand-holding before they have the confidence, noting that many new buyers over-tend their Karakuls, especially in the beginning.
Karakuls as pets
One sheep does not do well alone. With Karakuls’ habit of self-isolating, 2-3 Karakuls are the minimum to provide proper companionship. Lambs need to be repeatedly handled early on to transfer well from pasture to paddock setups. Rams do not make good pets.
As pets, sheep do well on grazing. Note that some landscape plants, such as azaleas, chrysanthemums, holly, elderberry and others, can cause digestive issues and be toxic to sheep. Karakuls love to browse and can do damage to fruit tree bark and thorny berry bushes.
For the most part, grain is not necessary except to make them fat. Being overly plump can lead to health problems. When conditions arise in changing feed, do so gradually as abrupt shifts can stress the rumen. Free-choice minerals should be available, noting that it is one formulated for sheep as other livestock salts may contain an abundance of copper, leading to copper toxicity in sheep.
While most pet sheep will never need to see a veterinarian, one never knows. Make sure to locate the phone number of a local large animal veterinarian before you need services.
Pros & Cons of Raising or Owning American Karakul
The American Karakul is ideal for pasture management, controlling weeds and shrubs, and forming and managing browse lines without the use of equipment. Raising your own ensures quality control for organic preferences and readily available manure for compost and fertilizer.
Other advantages include the awe of a newborn lamb, the delight in the joyous frolic of young lambs, and the serenity of the flock resting under the shade of a tree, quietly chewing their cud. And there are the friendships that develop through contact with fellow shepherds.
The population of the American Karakul has been genetically divergent from Central Asia stocks since the time of importation, and it warrants a classification as a separate breed. The Livestock Conservancy considers this an American breed in their conservation threatened category, with fewer than 1,000 registrations annually.
American Karakuls are becoming more difficult to locate, as large Karakul operations are dispersed as long-time shepherds retire or pass on. Flock sizes have been reduced and scattered across the country. Prices can start at $300.00 per head, moving upward with animals of special breeding or distinction.
Since this is a rare breed, it’s important to keep accurate records. Accurate lamb records and registration paperwork can be time-consuming. Wayward rams can upset a breeding program.
Sales to new breeders can challenge time management for excessive mentoring, as information about other sheep breeds may not be applicable to Karakuls.
American Karakul FAQs
American Karakuls are different from most other sheep breeds, and questions come up. Here are some of the most frequently asked.
How often do Karakuls need to be shorn?
In dry climates, shearing may be done once annually. In areas of rain and humidity, shearing may have to be done twice a year in order to avoid cotting, felting, and damage to the fleece.
Do fat tails interfere with breeding?
The fat tail can hinder mating. A young, inexperienced ram may have difficulty successfully maneuvering around a fat tail. Even the most virile and experienced of Karakul rams may not cover ewes with excessively fat tails. The problem can be made worse if the ewe is overly fat or did not lamb in the previous breeding season.
Do Karakul tails need to be docked?
A total tail dock on an American Karakul is rarely done, as the tail is an important fat storage area. The underside of the fatty portion of the tail is void of wool, lessening dung tag accumulation in that area. The physical appearance of the tail is an indicator of health and the ethnic meat market generally prefers that the tail not be docked.
There is an appendage, straight or curved, that hangs from the lower part of the fat portion of the tail. This lower appendage is sometimes docked, based on breeders’ preference. A docked appendage is favored for the show ring.
Can the American Karakul be shown at fairs and wool festivals?
Registered American Karakuls can be shown. While some larger fairs and festivals have classes for Karakuls, most show in a long wool division with other breeds. Their appearance in the ring generally catches attention, as they are so different. While this difference is standard for the American Karakul, some judges not familiar with Karakul traits can inadvertently place them to lower standings.
Where can breeders of the American Karakuls be found?
The Livestock Conservancy produces an annual printed directory and an abbreviated online directory of rare and heritage breeds that list member breeders and products of the American Karakuls.
The Shepherd Karakul Alliance maintains a Breeder page on its website.
The American Karakul Sheep Registry is another source for breeders.
Additionally, there are several Facebook groups that contain posts and photos of the American Karakul:
- American Karakul Sheep Breeders and Enthusiasts
- Karakul Shepherds Alliance
- American Fat Tail Sheep
Certainly there continues to be a place for Karakuls with the growing interest in homestead and small farm living. The American Karakul developed to be uniquely hardy and continues to evolve as breeders select and breed for specific characteristics that suit their operations.
In the early 90s, Dr. Maurice Shelton of Texas A&M and Dr. Jeffrey Black of East Central University shared similar thoughts; while the American Karakul is a classic example of an ancient breed with historical significance, it would remain a minor breed in the U.S. dependent on devoted shepherds who are passionate about the uniqueness of the breed.
Leslie Johnson of J Kambar Farm in Oklahoma City has been raising registered American Karakuls for more than 30 years. Her sheep are born in shades of red through brown that exhibit distinct color retention in the adult fleece. She is a fiber artist with skills and teaching experience in spinning, weaving, and feltmaking, utilizing the natural colored wools provided by the flock. She sells breeding stock, lambs, fleeces, yarn, and wool batts for spinning, weaving, and felt making.
In the vintage Karakul literature regarding the inheritance of color, brown karakuls, ginger reds, deep brown to light tan, and everything in between are referred to as Kambar. What a wonderful definition of what has been pursued in the color of the flock. So the name J Kambar Farms was chosen, ushering in a new chapter.
Leslie can be reached at 405-771-3072 or via email at email@example.com. You can also find J Kambar Farms on Facebook.
Would you like to learn more about different sheep breeds? Discover the Shetland Sheep: The Ideal Breed for Your Homestead or the Dorset Horn Sheep: Remarkable Breed with Unique Characteristics!
Are you considering getting sheep or do you already have a few? See A Beginner’s Guide to Sheep!