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Tradition Of Luxury

By Alan Harman

Kathy Donovan fell in love five years ago in a romance 3,400 years in the making. She flirted with the idea of beekeeping after she and husband Joe purchased Checkmate Farm in Bluemont, Virginia, in 2002.

“Our10-acre property was a horse farm for 40 years,” she says. “We have a stable, hay barn and seven black plank fenced paddocks. My husband assigned me the task—find something we can farm, anything—to put us back into land use. I had to find something that I could farm by myself since he travels a great deal.”

Her first thought was that bees would be something she could do.

“The president of the local Loudoun County Beekeepers Association, Bill Bundy, told her it would be a disaster raising bees on the mountain because the black bears would raid the hives. But he said his wife raises rare breed Karakul sheep and Kathy should take a look.

“I saw these striking graceful sheep in many colors. Their wool had a variety of amazing textures. The lambs were stunning.”

She was smitten.

Luxurious Karakul: Coat of many colors.

“I had no practical experience, but I immediately knew I wanted to raise Karakuls on Checkmate Farm.

The newest sheep farmer had opted for what may be the oldest breed of domesticated sheep.

About Karakuls

Archeological evidence indicates the existence of the Persian lambskin as early as 1400 B.C. and carvings of a distinct Karakul type have been found on ancient Babylonian temples.

They are a medium-sized sheep with a unique conformation and elegant appearance.

Karakuls are fat-tailed sheep, a trait that—in the Middle Eastern deserts from which they originated—provides nourishment during drought and low foliage seasons, similar to a camel’s hump.

Karakul heads are long and narrow.

Kathy says Karakul lambs are the most beautiful lambs in the world.

“They have a primary black gene but they can also be born red, brown, silver, white and spotted,” she says. “Newborns have tight curls to wavy moiré curls.”

The breed is also known as Karakul’skaya in Russia and as Astrakhan, Bukhara and Karagül in Turkey. It’s native to Central Asia and is named after a village called Karakul, which lies in the valley of the Amu Darja River in the former emirate of Bokhara, West Turkestan.

It is a high-altitude region with scant desert vegetation and a limited water supply. The resulting hard life gave the breed a hardiness and ability to thrive under adverse conditions, distinctive of the Karakul sheep to this day.

The rams weigh between 175 and 225 pounds and the ewes range from 100 to 150 pounds. They stand tall, with a long, narrow body. The top line is highest at the loin, with the rump long and sloping, blending into a low set broadtail.

The head is long and narrow, slightly indented between the eyes and often exhibiting a Roman-type nose. The long ears are always pointing downward and slightly forward and vary from a long U-shape to small V-shape, or may be entirely absent.

The long neck is carried semi-erect and the legs are medium to long, and light in bone. Rams can be polled or horned; horns vary from short to large outwardly curved spirals. Ewes are generally hornless. Wattles are not unusual.

The Karakuls, brought into the U.S. for the fur industry in the 1930s, are the only “fur” sheep in the world. Their newborn pelts are sewn into coats and hats.

Making Karakuls Pay

Kathy purchased five weaned lamb ewes in 2005 and her first ram a year later.

It was a dramatic change in lifestyle. Previously, the family lived in a suburban community outside Washington, D.C.

Many buttons can be made from each Karakul horn and sell well at good prices.

Now their home is on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with a 50-mile view stretching to Washington, an hour’s drive away.

The Washington Monument is visible from their living room window on a clear day.

By contrast, the farm is ringed with stone fences that have been bordering properties in that area since Revolutionary War times.

Today, Kathy has 30 Karakul sheep, including 17 ewes.

Her flock produces eight to 12 lambs a year.

“I try to arrange for ewes to lamb in the October to November and February to March time frames,” she says.

The farm sells breeding stock, market lambs, fleeces, roving for braiding rugs and spinning, braided rugs, buttons from ram horns, pelts and fat from the breed’s fat tail.

Karakul lamb and mutton is very mild-tasting. Ethnic markets want custom lamb cuts with many very familiar with the fat-tailed breed.

“We sell whole lamb, half lamb and custom cuts, and all of our lamb is USDA inspected,” Kathy says.

“We belong to a local sheep organization—Loudoun Valley Sheep Producers Association. The shepherds are wonderful mentors and have guided us through the process of marketing lamb and wool products.”

Kathy now is the association’s president. The group was founded in 1994 and has 65 farm members. Its role is to promote and support the area’s farm flocks, educate its members and the public and support young shepherds’ activities.

“We cooperatively produce a whole-lamb sausage available at local markets and weekend events,” she says. “We sell grilled lamb sandwiches and frozen lamb sausage at various local events.

Karakul roving supplies rug class students with raw material.

“Four years ago, we created the LVSPA Wool Shop. We set up shop at local events. Twenty farms provide their hand-spun, hand-dyed and natural-dyed yarns. We have blankets, roving, knitted items, ornaments, and yarn knitting kits using member’s yarns.”

Kathy now is working her way into internet sales from the farm.

“I recently sold two pregnant ewes to someone who discovered my farm on the internet (www.checkmatefarm.com),” she says. “I’ve had the web site for one year. I am in the process of adding short videos. Senior Shepherding Sheep Tips will be my first video on the site. The video is being edited now.

“My next step will be to post ads with photos of available pelts, roving colors and offer credit-card acceptance.”

Hazards & Solutions

Last winter, there were 52 inches of snow and the area had its worst snowstorm since 1870.

This pink Karakul looks good before, during and after shearing.

“I went outside at 12:30 p.m. to check on a pregnant ewe and discovered the roof of our 60-ft by 120-ft barn—an old indoor riding rink—had collapsed,” Kathy says. “Fortunately we had removed the sheep before the crash.”

The sheep stay outdoors in winter.

“We offer run-in sheds for shelter. The large indoor barn was a great place to bring sheep in before a storm. We are building a new barn to support farm activities.”

Checkmate Farm faces predator problems including black bears, mountain lions and coyotes.

“I purchased two female Anatolian Shepherd puppies at the same time I purchased my first flock,” Kathy says. “The puppies and sheep grew up together. I sold one female and kept one for breeding, purchased a male and raised one litter. I now have three guard dogs and one housedog on the farm.

“I know our dogs keep predators away from our sheep, goats and chickens. They also keep deer and predator birds out of the paddocks. I chose dogs because they can slip under gates, they can work as a team and warning barks are alerts to us. The Anatolian Shepherds have short hair, making it easy to check for ticks, and they do not need to be sheared with the sheep.”

Kathy shows her sheep at the Virginia State Fair, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival and local county fairs.

“I believe it is important to introduce the Karakuls to the public and future shepherds,” she says. “Sheep competitions help us sell breeding stock. I love to help people start a new Karakul sheep farm.”

Meeting The Market

Kathy has a ready market for Karakul meat.

“Our county is growing rapidly,” she says. “New people are moving into Loudoun County from the Middle Eastern part of the world. They do love ‘the fat-tailed lamb.’ Many use the fat for cooking. The ‘Buy Local; Buy Fresh’ campaign and the LVSPA website point internet customers to our farms.”

The farm’s location atop the mountain means it can be 10 degrees cooler than the Washington area and the region experiences severe ice storms and more snow than the folks in the valley.

Joe and Kathy do most of the work on the farm.

“We have two college graduate sons who think we are crazy,” Kathy says.

“I have three teenage girls that come to the farm to work with my Karakuls. We have a 4-H club for children who do not live on farms but want to learn how to raise sheep. The local Temple Hall Sheep Club is the 4-H agricultural program for non-ownership kids. The girls are learning sheep health care and the importance of raising heritage breeds. They took six Karakuls to the Loudoun County Fair to show in July.

There are about 25 Karakul farms and fewer than 1,000 of the sheep in the U.S. The Karakul is a rare breed listed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Kathy has joined the conservancy.

“We raise registered Karakuls for breeding to guarantee their existence for future generations to raise and enjoy,” she says.

“My goal is to help introduce this wonderful breed to new shepherds in hopes of expanding Karakuls in the U.S.”

Large flocks are still to be found outside the U.S., especially in Central Asia and South Africa. All U.S. stock is descended from the original importation because bringing in new bloodlines is restricted by government regulation.

Unique Wool Gets Attention

Kathy spins her own yarn and is experimenting with colors made from indigenous plants to use for dyeing her own wool. She also offers braided-roving-rug classes several times a year.

“Students from the rug classes love to visit the sheep that grew the wool that they use to make their beautiful rugs,” she says.

Kathy says she loves her Karakuls for their calm dispositions and unique personalities.

“They have strong mothering instincts and plenty of milk. Lambing is easier because they have long narrow noses, so the lambs do not get stuck. They are good foragers and do well grass-fed only. The meat is mild and tasty. Their wool comes in a variety of colors and the lambs are gorgeous.”

For thousands of years, their wool was spun to make Persian carpets. Karakul wool is a long, stout fiber. The sheep grow one inch of wool every month. Mills prefer to work with four- to six-inch staple lengths and Kathy shears in April and October. The strong fiber is also ideal for felting projects and outerwear.

Anatolian Shepherd dogs fend off bears, mountain lions and coyotes, and also help keep deer and predatory birds out.

An Oklahoma State University report says as the Karakul lambs grow, the curls open and lose their pattern and the color generally begins to turn brownish or bluish gray, getting grayer with age.

Other colors include a wide range of shades: Silver blues, grays, golden tans, reddish browns, white with flecks of other colors, and occasionally pure white.

In its native region, the colors are called arabi (black), guligas (pink-roan), kambar (brown), shirazi (gray) and sur (agouti).

Many adults have a double coat, a fine down undercoat covered by a coat of guard hair. The best have a fleece as glossy as their lamb coat. But there is a great variability in the fleece type of both coats, from “horse tail coarse” to silky soft.

The fleece does not have a high grease content and is easily spun with little preparation.

It produces a superior carpet yarn, is often used for rugs and saddle blankets, outer garments and wall-hangings, and has an excellent felting ability. It is the wool from which the art of felting evolved.

“We wash or dye the fleeces before we ship them to a fiber mill,” Kathy says.

New roving becomes available in February and July.

“We have a wide variety of dyed and natural color one-pound balls for rug roving,” she says.

“We are following the Registry Guidelines, which identify the newborn lamb’s wool characteristics. Every new fleece may be a different color. I love the variety of wool color and textures.”

With a growing interest in the fiber arts in the U.S., there has been an increased interest in the Karakul sheep, which is finding its niche as part of the cottage industry.

Karakul Advantages

The harsh conditions under which they were developed have given them strong and lasting teeth, a key to their longevity. They are resistant to internal parasites and foot rot.

While they respond to good feed and care, Karakuls are excellent foragers and will go through a season of scant food or graze marginal land in which ordinary sheep would not survive.

Karakuls withstand extremes of either hot or cold, but they should have access to dry cover and be kept out of marshy pastures.

Several feet of snow collapsed the barn; good thing Karakuls thrive outdoors in winter!

Karakuls breed out of season, making it possible for three lamb crops in two years. Single lambs are the rule, although twins are born occasionally.

The ewes are very protective and attentive mothers, resulting in a high lamb-survival rate. The Karakuls possess a strong flocking instinct and can be run either on open range or in fenced pastures. They do not herd well and are likely to scatter or fight a dog trying to herd them.

The Karakuls differ radically in conformation from many other breeds. The narrow appendage below their tail’s “fat sack” is often recurved, giving an S shape.

Most lambs are born coal black with lustrous wavy curls, with the face, ears, and legs usually showing smooth, sleek hair.

The American Karakul Sheep Registry is the breed’s recorder in the U.S. It evolved from the Karakul Fur Sheep Registry founded in the 1930s and is open to all breeders of quality Karakuls.

Its purposes are to provide a recording service, to work towards a high standard of quality in the Karakuls and to promote and preserve the breed in the U.S.

Kathy & Joe Donovan may be reached at Checkmate Farm, 18923 Checkmate Lane, Bluemont, VA 20135; E-mail: kathy@checkmatefarm.com; Phone: 540-554-2858.

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