Ark of Taste
St. Croix Sheep
a.k.a. Virgin Island White Sheep, White Virgin Islander sheep, White Virgin Island sheep
An American sheep breed, the St. Croix is part of the Caribbean Hair sheep family of breeds. Caribbean Hair sheep were developed from the hair sheep of West Africa and a few European wooled sheep that were brought to the Caribbean islands beginning in the 1600s. The sheep proliferated as subsistence livestock, and they were also valued for their manure, which was critical to sugar cane production.
Over time, Caribbean Hair sheep became well adapted to the heat and humidity of their environment. Their hair coat, which eliminates the need for shearing, is part of this adaptation. Today, there are several landrace populations within this breed family in the Caribbean region. Most of these sheep are white and polled (the so-called Virgin Islands White strain), though local variants can have different coloration or markings, including black, black-bellied or spotted.
A strain of the St. Croix sheep is being raised only on the North American mainland and has not yet been reintroduced to the Caribbean region. In 1975, Dr. Warren Foote of Utah State University imported 22 ewes and three rams from St. Croix. Offspring of this imported group were further selected for consistency of conformation, and this process resulted in the development of the mainland St. Croix strain, which is now recognized as a standardized breed in the United States.
The original St. Croix landrace, a broader genetic population belonging to the same breed, continues to be raised on the islands, particularly on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. The Agricultural Experimental Station at University of the Virgin Islands has an active breeding program of St. Croix sheep.
St. Croix sheep have well-documented parasite resistance, far superior to that found in most other sheep breeds. The breed is small, with ewes averaging 120 pounds and rams 165 pounds. They are known for their high fertility and ewes often produce twins and have plenty of milk to raise them. Two lambings a year are not uncommon.
They are excellent foragers and very easy keepers. Their browsing ability makes them useful for land management, including mowing grass in orchards and controlling invasive pest plants. In the Virgin Islands, these sheep are raised on a rotational grass pasture, and their small size and fecundity make them suitable animals for small acreage farms. In North America’s cooler climates, the St. Croix grows a heavy winter coat of wool and hair that is shed in the spring.
Their combination of characteristics make them an excellent choice for low-input meat production. The tender meat has a fragrant, sweet aroma and a delicate taste.
Currently, the St. Croix is increasing in numbers, and though it is still rare, the breed’s future seems promising. The breed is listed as threatened’ on the ALBC Conservation Priority List, a level defined as less than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States, and fewer than 5,000 individuals estimated worldwide.
Photos courtesy of Jeannette Beranger