The Karakul sheep is known for the beautiful fur of its lambs, the astrakhan. A silky black curly fleece found on luxurious coats and other hats. Originally from the semi-desert regions of Central Asia, where vegetation is poor, water scarce and temperatures extreme, the Karakul sheep gets through difficult times by storing fat… in its tail! Close-up on one of the oldest sheep breeds in the world, once protected by the emirs of Uzbekistan.
Who is the Karakul sheep?
This breed of sheep originates from Central Asia, and more precisely from the Karakul region, in Uzbekistan. From its Latin name Ovis aries aries karakul, this long-haired sheep is a mammal belonging to the order Artiodactyls, the family Bovidae and the subfamily Caprine. A medium-sized animal, the karakul sheep measures between 60 and 70 cm at the withers and weighs 40 to 58 kilos. The male measures between 65 and 80 cm and weighs 60 to 80 kilos. The life expectancy of Karakul sheep is 20 years.
What is the origin of the Karakul breed?
Some archaeological evidence suggests that Karakul sheep have been raised since 1400 BC. The breed was created around Black Lake (Kara Kul), near Bukhara, a city on the Silk Road in central Uzbekistan. With its uniformly black, wavy and highly shiny curls, karakul lamb is particularly prized. The emirs of Bukhara retained the monopoly on this silky fleece until the beginning of the 20th century, which they exported via Iran or the Russian city of Astrakhan, located on the edge of the Caspian Sea. This is why the luxurious fur of the sheep is called “astrakan” (without h). When the Emir of Bukhara was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1920, he took refuge in Afghanistan, taking with him the finest livestock. The country then became the world’s leading producer of karakul wool, ahead of Uzbekistan.
Where are Karakul sheep raised?
The breed is well represented in its historic stronghold of Central Asia: Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Russia and China. Karakuls are also numerous in Namibia where they were introduced by German settlers at the beginning of the 20th century. The herds have adapted well to the arid and semi-arid conditions of the region and have supplanted the Namaqua Afrikaner sheep, traditionally raised by the Nama people. Namibia has become one of the world’s leading producers of karakul wool. The breed has been exported to around fifty countries around the world, including the United States and France, to areas of the country with a warm, dry climate.
What does Karakul sheep look like?
The karakul is a breed of long-haired sheep, black at birth then gray as it ages. By its general appearance, it gives the impression of an animal of robust constitution, with strong bones, without being heavy. Its body is narrow in front, ample and raised at the back; its limbs are tall and have long, thin attachments. The elongated head of the karakul widens towards the forehead and narrows at the muzzle. Horns are rare in sheep. Rams have a more pronounced aquiline nose than females and on their backs, a hump forms over the years. The animal is distinguished by its large S-shaped tail.
Why is his cock so fat?
The tail of the karakul sets quite high and becomes very wide at the base, even a little round. This particularity comes from the accumulation of fat within two lateral lobes separated by a median furrow which marks the location of the vertebrae. When pasture is abundant, the fat reserve can reach 5 kilos. Edible, it is used locally as butter and very popular because, it is said, it does not taste like ointment. The karakul sheep constitutes a stock of fat to withstand difficult living conditions. Sheep can in fact survive extreme temperatures, ranging from – 30 to + 50°C, endure periods of severe drought and drink salt water. The Karakul sheep has adapted to the dry climate of Bukhara, marked by sudden atmospheric changes. On the other hand, it fears cold humidity and easily catches diseases in these circumstances.
What are the characteristics of its wool?
Unlike lambs’ wool, that of adults has no market value. A few weeks after birth, the sheep changes its appearance: its entire body is covered with a fairly thick fleece, made up of not very flexible strands, of large diameter, more or less wavy and long (16 to 20 cm in the ewe). and from 20 to 28 cm in the ram). The head, ears and extremities up to the knee and hock have short hair. The fleece, very black when young, tends to become gray with age. Gray hairs begin to appear after the first shearing, then around the age of 2, the ends of the strands turn brownish-brown, then gray. From the fifth year onwards, the Karakul sheep displays an entirely grayish color, except on the face, ears and legs, which remain black.
Why is lambs wool so precious?
Black, curly and shiny, the fleece of Karakul lambs is used to make luxury clothing. In fashion circles, it is called astrakhan fur. To obtain this wool quality, the sheep must be slaughtered within 2 or 3 days of their birth. Then the fine curls will disappear and the coat will lose its value. The material obtained being small, the sacrifice of numerous lambs is necessary to make clothes (around thirty for a coat). The karakul born prematurely provides the Breitschwanz. Even more prized, this fur comes from the fetus living its last days of gestation. The animals are announced as stillborn but in reality, the sheep are slaughtered in order to extract the young from their womb. A practice denounced by numerous animal protection associations around the world.
How to raise Karakul sheep?
This breed has, among other advantages, a solid constitution, an ability to adapt to extreme temperatures – summer drought and freezing winter – poor diet and scarce water. But it is not because the karakul is undemanding that we should neglect its living conditions. Here are our tips for keeping this sheep in good health:
Originally from desert and semi-desert areas of Central Asia, the karakul breed is accustomed to dry climates. It fears cold humidity and the signs of intolerance are unmistakable: the volume of wool and milk decreases, the animal loses weight and becomes ill. It is therefore recommended to provide this sheep with an environment that closely imitates its natural habitat, which involves protecting it from wind and rain by means of a shelter. The sheepfold must be well ventilated, but without drafts, and the temperature maintained at a minimum of 6°C. Karakul requires a regular change of bedding (straw) to keep the ground dry and prevent the appearance of painful hoof diseases;
As a reminder, the sheep is a gregarious species which must live with at least 1 congener and more, if possible. The karakul requires daily outings over a large grazing area. If we take into account the need for rotation, a minimum surface area of 2000m² for 2 sheep is recommended. A perfectly fenced enclosure will prevent the intrusion of predators and the escape of sheep. Remember to check the fence regularly;
Grass represents at least 60% of its diet to which is added fodder. Depending on the quality of the pasture, it may be necessary to provide nutritional supplements to the karakul to meet its protein, vitamin and mineral requirements. In addition to hay, the winter diet must be supplemented with cereals and oilseeds, without forgetting salt and permanent access to water (rams consume up to 1 liter per day);
It is advisable to shear karakul sheep twice a year, in spring and autumn. Otherwise, the hair becomes clogged, making shearing difficult and painful for the animal. In addition, wool becomes a painful burden for the sheep (the fleece of a male weighs up to 5 kilos and that of a ewe up to 3.5 kilos);
If the sexual maturity of the Karakul sheep is reached between 6 and 8 months, it is advisable to wait 1 year and a half to carry out the first mating. Five months later, a healthy female gives birth without human intervention;
As with any livestock production, it is crucial to schedule regular veterinary visits to prevent the appearance of common diseases in sheep, such as mange, internal and external parasites. Care includes at least vaccination, deworming and general monitoring of the herd. The karakul breed is generally hardy, but careful monitoring of each individual is essential to detect any warning signs of a health problem.