“I never wanted sheep that were mainstream,” said Julia Delpino owner of Oz Farm in Needmore, PA. “If everyone has them, what’s the advantage? I’ve always believed that being a bit different was good for business.”
Eighteen years ago Delpino bought her first sheep — a heritage breed called Tunis. At one point she had as many as 150 registered Tunis and Tunis-Romney crosses. She eventually sold all the crosses and now keeps only the old-style Tunis. Today these sheep are her primary source of income as she sells locker lamb, mutton, wool and breeding stock.
Tunis are one of the oldest American livestock breeds, dating back to 1799 when they were first imported into the U.S. from Tunisia. Tunis quickly became popular and were nicknamed “the redheads” because their creamy white wool is accentuated by reddish tan hair that covers their faces and legs.
Due to shortages in food the breed was almost wiped out entirely during the time of the Civil War. They are now considered a rare breed and are on The Livestock Conservancy watch list. Being on the watch list means that there are fewer than 2,500 annual registrations in the U.S. and an estimated global population of less than 10,000.
Delpino says that Tunis are excellent all-purpose sheep to work with. They produce a mild flavored meat, a medium grade wool fleece that is excellent for spinning and they produce a lot of milk.
In addition to this Tunis are a medium sized sheep that are polled and have a docile nature. These characteristics are especially beneficial for Delpino because when she started off she had two young children, ages two and seven, that would be helping to raise the sheep.
Tunis not only have the ability to breed out of season but they can be successfully crossed with other sheep and carry over many of their own beneficial traits. Ewes become fertile early, consistently produce twins and are excellent mothers to their lambs. Tunis ewes are heavy milkers so lambs are able to fatten quickly. Furthermore, lambs are born with a double coat of red fiber on their bodies which helps to protect them from harsher climates.
Another advantage to raising Tunis is that they are less expensive to feed. This is partially due to their small size and partially because they were bred and developed over time to thrive on grass-based diets.
Delpino says sheep which are raised on grass produce a more nutritious and mild flavored meat than sheep raised on grain.
“Those that are raised on grass have more CLA and omega-3 when consumed,” Delpino said. “Having Tunis allows me to offer my butcher’s customers something different. They appreciate having a type of lamb and mutton that isn’t available in most stores, especially like mine which are grass fed.”
Delpino’s claim is backed up by recent studies. According to the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin, compared to many other meats grass-fed lamb has a higher concentration of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a beneficial healthy fatty acid that can help burn fat, build the immune system and even potentially fight cancer. Their study also confirmed that grass-fed animals produce meat which has higher ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids than the meat which comes from grain-fed animals.
Delpino says that Tunis sheep are very hardy and can handle both hot and cold weather relatively well. For this reason, she is able to keep her sheep outside year-round without a shelter.
Thanks to sound management practices like good nutrition, frequent pasture rotation, open air environments, lots of exercise and keeping a closed flock, Delpino has no need to use antibiotics or hormones. The only drug that Delpino uses is an anti-parasite medication for deworming right before her ewes give birth. The rest of the year she uses diatomaceous earth, which she mixes with the sheep’s loose mineral supplements.
According to Delpino a final benefit to raising heritage sheep like Tunis is the satisfaction that comes from knowing you are doing your part to restore a rare livestock breed while preserving the heritage, history and culture that comes along with it.
“I believe that encouraging heritage livestock breeds allows for greater genetic diversity within a species,” Delpino said. “For myself, if I had to choose a sheep breed again, I’d stick with Tunis.”