History of Barbados Blackbelly Sheep

The Barbados Blackbelly as a breed originated and evolved on the Caribbean island of Barbados from crosses of African hair sheep and European wooled breeds. There were many environmental factors that naturally selected for hairiness, such as high tropical temperatures and burrs that tangled in the wool. Shepherds continued to select for sleek hair coats and striking coloration, and one of the resulting breeds is the Barbados Blackbelly sheep. Native Barbadians regard Barbados Blackbelly sheep as a national treasure.

In 1904, the U.S. Department of Agriculture imported from Barbados four ewes and one ram to Bethesda, Maryland. From that original importation, research flocks were established at North Carolina State University, Texas A&M, and Dixon Ranch in California.


Creation of American Blackbelly Sheep

Sheep from many of these flocks were crossbred with Mouflon and Rambouillet to obtain a larger carcass and a rack of horns. These crosses created a wide variety of color combinations, and the one most popular with Texas trophy hunters was named the “Corsican” by the YO Ranch. Many Corsican sheep were identical in color to the original Barbados Blackbelly stock, but sported majestic horns that curled or spiraled out from their exotically colored heads.

A game rancher by the name of Thompson Temple created the first hunters’ record book in 1976, and the Corsican was the first category of sheep in the book. After awhile, trophy hunters had bagged their Corsican, and soon the entries in the trophy book for Corsicans slacked off. Mr. Temple was a marketing genius, however. To create new entries in the sheep category of the record book, he bestowed several of these other color combinations with exotic names such as “Hawaiian Black” and “Texas Dall.” The YO Ranch named another the “Painted Desert.” Thus, three new breeds of sheep were developed out of the original Barbados Blackbelly/Mouflon/Rambouillet crosses.

Too Many Names Masks the Demise of Barbados Blackbelly Sheep

The main difference between the Barbados Blackbelly and the Corsican cross was the rack of horns on the ram. Some crossbred ewes occasionally had horns, but most ewes carried their genetics hidden inside, like a ticking time bomb. Within a few years, everyone had their own pet name for these crosses—barbado, barbie dolls, bbsheep, corsican, barbs, blackbellies, Texas Blackbelly, and Barbados Blackbelly—and it became very difficult to know what kind of sheep would result from any breeding effort. Some had horns; some did not; some had black bellies; some did not. A breeder wanting a sheep guaranteed to produce offspring with a desired horn and color combination was in for a miserable ride.

In 1996, a group of Oklahoma breeders established the Barbados Blackbelly Sheep Association International (BBSAI). They adopted the breed standard used in the country of Barbados, but allowed horned rams to be registered. Although this tightened the phenotype for the breed, it did nothing to help breeders separate purebred Barbados Blackbelly from the horned crossbreds. In 2004, the Association researched the pedigrees of almost 1000 registered sheep and realized there were fewer than 12 breeding Barbados Blackbelly rams in the U.S. and fewer than 200 ewes. Of those, over half lived in university research flocks. The BBSAI finally recognized that unless it could educate the sheep world about the difference between the two sheep, the Barbados Blackbelly would quickly become extinct in the U.S.

In 2004, the BBSAI developed a new breed standard and name for the crossbreed—officially recognizing it as the American Blackbelly. Because over 80% of the Association’s membership raise American Blackbelly sheep, this was a popular decision that enabled them to breed to a higher standard while protecting Barbados Blackbelly from further loss caused by misidentification. The Association closed the Barbados Blackbelly registry in 2007 to ensure that only sheep sired by known Barbados Blackbelly sheep can be registered, further protecting the small and precarious gene pool. The American Blackbelly registry will continue to be an open registry.

It is important that you understand the differences between these sheep because you need to know what you are buying. You need to become part of the solution, not part of the problem. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation on the Internet, and it is very difficult for people new to blackbelly sheep to wade through the confusion of names. I want to help ensure that you get the breed you want and that your sheep produce consistently for you across generations. I want you to call your sheep by its correct breed name and teach others to do the same. I am not trying to disparage any crossbreed you might take a fancy to—it might not have a black belly or facial bars; it might have little elf ears or a lot of wool in the summer. But I want you to understand that those crossbreeds are not American Blackbelly sheep or Barbados Blackbelly sheep.

Photo credits (reprinted with permission):
Barbados Blackbelly—Carol Elkins, Pueblo, CO
Mouflon—Edd Bissell,  Knoxville, TN.
Rambouillet—Terry & Viki Clark, Lapeer, MI
American Blackbelly—Tom and Nancy Richardson, Santa Fe, MO