Purebred Karakul ram (Owned and photographed by Michael Willis)
Released from quarantine in New Zealand in the mid-1990s were two sheep breeds – the Karakul and the Awassi, representatives of fat-tailed (and fat-rumped) sheep characteristic of the Middle East as well as southern Asia and North Africa (although they were found as far south as the African Cape by the seventeenth century). As the general name implies, they are distinguished by an accumulation of fat in the tail and around the rump which evolved as a store of food necessary for survival in a harsh, drought-prone environment.
Descriptions of such sheep can be found in the earliest records of British exploration, but they have been known and bred for thousands of years as is witnessed by Biblical reference to the type. The Book of Leviticus records that a ram was bought for a burnt offering. After it was slain, Moses "took the fat at the rump" which was then burnt at the altar.
Besides the characteristic ‘fat-tail’ feature, both breeds are relatively long-legged with a long hairy coat, mainly black in the Karakul and fawn or brown in the Awassi. Horns, Roman noses and pendulous ears add to their highly distinctive appearance. Both breeds are also well adapted to a hard, dry environment.
The Karakul is the original ‘Persian lamb’ which has been known as a distinct breed for thousands of years. It is most famous as a producer of high grade pelts for quality garments – the best being taken from unborn lambs and those up to three days old. The hairy coat of older animals was used in the production of Persian carpets.
The meat of the Karakul is very lean and the breed’s abundant milk supply is used for butter and cheese in some countries.
Karakul ewe (Owned and photographed by Michael Willis)
When New Zealand’s first Karakuls were released from quarantine in 1994 they were retained in a flock near Christchurch owned by Landcorp. Subsequently this flock was released and bought up by three Rare Breeders in Canterbury who are continuing a programme of ‘breeding up’. (An interesting observation with respect to the Karakuls is that when released by Landcorp they had been docked. Where this breed would normally have accumulated fat in their tails, it was distributed in their rumps – a clear indication of the close relationship and common origin of the two groups.)
Whereas Karakuls came south, the related Awassis, when released from quarantine in 1995, were retained in Hawkes Bay. They, too, underwent an intensive breeding programme, primarily in the eastern North Island.