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History of the Jacob Sheep

Jacob sheep may be one of the oldest breeds of domestic sheep with the irregular spotted fleece acting as camouflage and the horns acting as some defensive protection against predators. The art evidence of spotted, horned sheep ex­ tends back to 1800 BC in an Egyptian wall painting, a Scythian gold necklace from  1000 BC and Sicilian pottery from 600 BC. While the exact origins of the Jacob are unknown and the subject of considerable speculation, there is evidence of strong Mediterranean roots. The path to current populations of Jacobs in North America extends from the Mediterra­ nean area, through Spain to England and from England to North America and from the Mediterranean area along the"silk trade route" to China.


A story in the Bible, Genesis 30, describes how the patriarch Jacob selectively bred spotted sheep as his wage for work­ ing for his father-in-law Laban in Mesopotamia/Syria. Jacob, with his wives and spotted sheep, returned to Canaan and when Jacob's son, Joseph, became a governor of Egypt, Jacob went to Egypt with his flock of spotted sheep. From Egypt, the migration of the breed across North Africa to Spain seems probable. While the translation of Genesis reads "spotted sheep", the word could easily be translated as "spotted goats."


The modern name "Jacob" is a descriptive reference to spotted sheep that seems to first appear in a letter from Mrs. Maude, Hampton Court, Middlesex, England, to Mr. Heatly Noble in 1913. Mr. Noble was conducting research for his privately published boo, "The Sheep and its Cousins" which was an effort to trace the genetic origin of spotted, horned sheep. Mr. Noble, an Englishman, identified forty one flocks in England, wrote to their owners to obtain detailed informa­ tion about their origin and history. Mrs. Maude wrote in reply: "The (spotted) sheep you mentioned were given to Sir Geo. Maude by the late Lord Bradford...My husband on the death of his father in 1894 sold them. I do not know who bought them...! do not know how many there were to sell. By their markings, they were called "Jacob's Flock."


Mrs. Maude's flock, the "Jacob's Flock" was not the first time "Jacob" was used to describe the spotted, horned sheep. The sheep owned by Mrs. Maude and her husband, Colonel Maude, were handed down from his father, Sir George Maude, who acquired them from George Fitzwilliam, Milton, Northhamptonshire, England, and his flock can be traced directly to Earl of Fitzwilliam, Wentworth, Yorkshire and the year 1750. There is an account dated June, 1834 listing the holdings of Earl Fitzwilliam and among the 777 sheep and hogs inventoried are the entry: "Jacob sheep--11".

Apparently  by the early 1900s, Jacob sheep had little commercial value and most piebald horned sheep became an or­ namental or curiosity breed loosely called "park sheep" because most were located in the 60 public parks in England. These sheep were kept with deer and other exotic animals with management and care extending from none to very good. Some piebald horned flocks were also kept on private estates outside the parks and were variously called Persian sheep, Barbary sheep, or Portuguese sheep because the owner thought they originated in that country even though there was no evidence to suggest these were countries of origin. Other names included African sheep, by which two English flocks were known (supported by some evidence of a South African origin), and Spanish sheep, perhaps the best claim, with a strong Armada connection (1588) and other English flock acquisitions from Spain. Recall the entry for the account holdings of Earl Fitzwilliam in 1812 through 1823 lists "Spanish sheep" and the Spanish sheep entry disap­ peared in 1834 with the "Jacob Sheep" entry.


By 1911, piebald horned sheep were nearly extinct in England. J. J. Elwes and J. Cossar Ewart started the Park Sheep Society to save seven breeds of "park sheep" including the "pied Spanish sheep with four horns." In July, 1969, 78 peo­ ple with 55 flocks and 1,681 Jacob sheep formed the Jacob Sheep Society in England to preserve the primitive stock and improve the Jacob sheep for commercial purposes.


Virtually all Jacob sheep in the U.S. are descended from imported stock. These importations occurred about 1954, 1976 and 1977 but the actual dates and sources with supporting documentation are still being researched. Primarily zoos, in­ cluding the Brookfield Zoo, may have made the circa 1954 importations in Chicago. As the Jacob sheep zoo population increased, some sheep were sold to Charlie Hume, Dr. Fell, Bill Reynolds, and Fred Meyer. Because there was no Jacob sheep registry in the United states, these sheep were never registered. However, these sheep were moved to other small farms raising exotic stock and, later, to people raising Jacob sheep. An importation was made by the Winnipeg Zoo in 1954 and was purchased by Ed Ackerman of British Columbia from his father-in-law who purchased them from the Winnipeg Zoo.


One of the better documented importations of Jacob sheep into the United States was that described by Todd Hescock, son of Maizie Hescock. Todd describes first seeing Jacob sheep in Scotland in 1976 and the circuitous and time­ consuming trip from their arrival in Canada for quarantine in 1977 to their final arrival in Vermont in 1983. Of the 21 sheep that entered the United States and arrived at the Hescock Farm, only one was a member of the original Scottish group. This importation is the basis for the Jacob line called "Jacob's Ladder."


Used by permission of St. Jude's Farm, Fred & Joan Horak


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