Down East 2013 ©
The popularity of polar fleece is heating up the market for a Maine-bred sheep that stays warm without wool. Katahdin sheep, developed in the 1950s and 1960s by Abbott farmer Michael Piel, are attracting new interest — and agricultural research money — to Maine because they don’t have thick wool fleeces. And as lambing finishes up this month, that’s suddenly an attractive trait for flock owners because polar fleece has ruined the market for the real thing.
“Wool prices are so low they don’t even cover the cost of shearing anymore,” explains Thomas Settlemire, a longtime sheep raiser and chemistry professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. “At the same time, the demand and price for lamb are growing.”
Katahdins eliminate the expense of shearing but produce a smaller lamb than the commercial market requires. Financed by a $170,000 federal grant, Settlemire and Dick Brzozowski, of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, have begun a four-year project to improve the breed, which until recently had attracted only limited interest among sheep farmers. “Our goal is to produce a Katahdin lamb that’s a little heavier, with increased disease and parasite resistance,” explains Settlemire.
The late Michael Piel created the Katahdin as a so-called “hairless” breed. He brought in sheep from around North America and from Great Britain, then bred and rebred them to create a new line with a short, deerlike coat that could still withstand Maine winters. Ironically, in the years since, Katahdins have been most popular in warm-weather regions where their lack of wool keeps the animals cooler and reduces external parasites.
Settlemire and Brzozowski will use Katahdins from four flocks, including Piel’s original herd in Abbot, as well as sheep from the original bloodlines, to create their new and improved Katahdin. “We’re not using any gene-splicing or cloning,” Settlemire notes. “This is just plain, old-fashioned, breed improvement.” Once the project is completed, they will distribute the sheep to ten farms. “We’ve already had interest from sheep raisers in China, the Philippines, and other countries,” he says.
If the two researchers are successful, it appears that the Katahdin will soon enjoy a warm welcome all over the world.
(Published May 2001)