They wouldn’t win a beauty contest for sheep and their frame is quite narrow but Barbados Blackbelly sheep (BBS) are fully tropically adapted, have 100% hair, a strong resistance to internal parasites, are excellent foragers and highly fertile. Both sexes are polled. This slow maturing breed of meat sheep has developed over many centuries since they were brought from West Africa in the mid 1600’s during the early days of the slave trade. The truth is they look much more like a goat than a sheep. Through a process of primarily 300 years of what must have been brutal natural selection, a limited amount of crossbreeding with wool sheep and more recently a targeted selection process by human managers, these sheep are now established as a heritage breed of hair sheep ideally placed for use in cross breeding programs in the tropics. The latitude of Barbados is 13 degrees north, only 1 degree further from the equator than Darwin with a similarly high annual rainfall of about 1500mm. The island is only 350 km from the northeast coast of Venezuela.
BBS thrive in the hot, humid environments that are challenging for most sheep, but also do well in colder climates. They are able to breed in any season producing a high proportion of twins and triplets. Under ideal conditions they are capable of lambing twice a year. Mature ewes weigh about 40kg with mature rams averaging around 60 kg. Carcases are relatively small, have a low-fat percentage and the meat has a mild and pleasant flavour. I purchased some during my visit and I can confirm it makes an excellent curry.
The Barbados government figures estimate that there are about 30,000 sheep on the island; about one-third are purebred, another third are high grade crossbreds while the final third are a variable mix of BBS and several other breeds. BBS are now widely distributed around the world with populations in twenty-five countries in the Americas, Asia and Europe. It is most abundant in the Caribbean region, Mexico and Peru. In 2015 the total world population was estimated at about 158,000 including 1,900 registered purebreds in the USA. Several hundred thousand descendants of BBS can be found in Texas where they have been bred with both domestic sheep including Rambouillet and wild Mouflon sheep from Europe.
BBS have recently been used in a crossbreeding project to develop a new breed called “Waringin Sheep” at the University of North Sumatera in Indonesia. They were crossed with Indonesian Short tailed sheep, Suffolk’s and St. Croix sheep (another hair sheep from the Caribbean) to produce a heavy meat sheep capable of growing lot fed males to 150kg while maintaining high fertility and parasite resistance.
In my experience one of the most important diseases of small ruminants in the tropics is Melioidosis, a bacterial disease causing illness and death in sheep and goats which is also an important disease of humans, especially those with a compromised immune system. In Darwin, this disease is murderous for sheep and goats directly responsible for annual deaths of 5-10%. There is no satisfactory treatment or control for Melioidosis so it effectively prevents large scale sheep and goat projects from developing in the hot tropical zone from Darwin to Katherine. I contacted the Barbados Department of Agriculture and spoke to the veterinary epidemiologist who advised that they did not recognise this disease in sheep and goats on the island. She contacted the local veterinary pathologist who also confirmed the same advice. From the literature, the disease has been recorded in most parts of the world including the Caribbean. It would be interesting to find out from the Indonesian breeders if they have observed any cases in their imported BB sheep. If BBS could be proven to be resistant to Melioidosis then this could be a very significant advantage for the future of the breed.
When sheep are exported from tropical zones, Bluetongue is always an important disease for consideration in relation to international health protocols. The government vet advised that while the virus was present and resulted in occasional positive serology, clinical bluetongue had not been seen on the island. Other major diseases which are important for export protocols are also absent from Barbados including Foot and Mouth Disease, Sheep and Goat Pox, Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR), Rabies, Ovine brucellosis and many others.
I had lived in Bali for over 3 years before the arrival of the pandemic. I am a big fan of this beautiful island and intend to return there in January, but I would have to say that Barbados is such a magical place that I would choose it over Bali if only it were also 2 hours flying time from Darwin.