Sheep breeder plays role in Tunis recovery

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LITCHFIELD, Ohio – Jozi Best is the kind of person who makes an opportunity out of whatever situation she finds.

She first raised sheep on her New Hampshire farm, and then developed an animal husbandry consulting business. She learned how to shear to assist the New England weavers who wanted to grow their own wool, and needed one or two animals carefully sheared.

Finding herself stuck in England, she took a job lambing for a farmer who had saddled himself with too many other responsibilities. That farmer bought her a round-trip ticket to return for lambing each year for the next three years.

She has managed other people’s flocks, raised champions, and taken them on the national show circuit. And when she came to Ohio she transferred her knowledge of sheep to alpacas and was the animal care manager for the Magical Alpaca Farm in Litchfield.

National Tunis sale.

Although Best has been in Ohio only two years, she has seized the possibility of making the Great Lakes Sheep and Wool Show and Sale, May 26-27 in Wooster, the national sale for Tunis sheep breeders.

The national sale is currently up for grabs because it is being moved from its traditional location at Syracuse, N.Y.

Although the National Tunis Sheep Registry board of directors did not accept the invitation extended by Best and Tunis breeder Nancy Schmidt of Collins, Ohio, to bring the national sale to Wooster, the pair’s efforts have still made this year’s Great Lakes a major Tunis event.

The Great Lakes Sheep and Wool Show and Sale, in its 10th year, is a well-established event that draws large numbers of sheep and buyers.

Began expanding.

This year’s sale now includes all sheep breeds – its consignments are about half wool and half meat breeds. Five Tunis breeders have consigned 15 lambs and yearlings. Sellers include Bob Bartholomew of East Chatham, N.Y., one of the top national breeders.

Best will be taking a spring ram lamb, a yearling ewe and a spring ewe lamb, all sired by her 1999 Big E reserve grand champion ram, Jozi 8127 “Big Sky.”

She freely admits that right now she is not the top Tunis breeder in the country, but maintains that her flock is among the top three. She has both a former national reserve champion ram and last year’s Louisville reserve champion twin lambs ewe in her small flock of less than 15 animals.

As a breeder, Best has made an effort to maintain a pure Asian Tunis bloodline in her flock, rather than any of the crossbreed influences now prevalent in the Tunis lines. Breeding rams with pure Asian bloodlines, she said, are becoming more difficult to find.

Campaign to continue.

Best said that her campaign to bring the national sale to Wooster hasn’t ended just because it didn’t happen this year.

As the number of Tunis registrations has grown to 1,000 to 1,200 a year, Best said, the largest number of new breeders are beginning to be concentrated in the Upper Midwest.

While the national registry still shows about 100 members in New York and Pennsylvania, there are now 58 members in the Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin region, and another 40 further west. Indiana is the fastest growing Tunis sheep state.

In Ohio, Tunis sheep are being included in several county fairs, including those at Medina, Huron, Lorain, Geauga, Hardin, and Logan counties, with separate Tunis classes at the last three. Last year the Geauga fair has three Tunis flocks entered.

Easier to come.

“It just makes sense to move the national sale further west and encourage more people to participate by making it easier for them to come,” Best said.

When Best first became interested in raising Tunis sheep, she said, there were not very many available. She saw one at the New Hampshire state fair, but could not find any to buy in the state.

An ancient breed that originated in Tunisia, where their history goes back at least 3,000 years, Tunis sheep were once quite common in this country.

They were first imported into Pennsylvania in 1799 as a gift to Richard Peters from the Bey of Tunis. Thomas Jefferson raised them and they were used to rebuild the flock at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

But most of the Tunis were slaughtered and eaten during the Civil War. They survived in small numbers in Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York.

A horse person.

As a child, Best spent time at her family’s ancestral farm in Rhode Island, often volunteering to clean out horse stalls just to be around the animals. There were no sheep in her life until her young daughters became interested in them.

When her older daughter did very well with a pony project her first year in 4-H, she was allowed, as a reward, to go with friends to visit the livestock barns on the fairgrounds.

She came back knowing that the next year she wanted to raise a lamb.

After a couple of years of lamb projects, Best decided it was time to reintroduce sheep to her granite hillside farm, from which they had been absent since the late 18th century. She established a market lamb business, and sold freezer lamb.

Lamb midwife.

As she became knowledgeable about sheep management, she eventually became a sheep management consultant and unofficial sheep midwife for neighbors who couldn’t afford to have a vet every time their sheep were lambing.

She went on from there to build a career as a livestock manager and consultant.

She sold her farm to spend a year in Haiti on a Mormon mission, teaching rural people how to care for their sheep and goats in order to make them more productive.

She traveled to Australia to study sheep raising practices there, visiting the national experimental stations across the country.

Montana sheep ranch.

When she married again, she and her new husband took on the management of a flock of registered Columbias established by a novice breeder in Montana, and took his sheep directly to a national championship the first year.

Through all of this, Best held on to her flock of Tunis. Until she went to Montana, they were with her daughter in Vermont.

They flourished in the several feet of snow on the Montana range, where they followed her around and brought the wild range sheep with them. And they have flourished in the small barn and fenced yard she has for them on the alpaca farm in Ohio.

Best sheep to keep.

Tunis are medium sized, docile and easy to get along with, have strong maternal instincts, and lamb out of season. Best said while she was raising them as market animals, they were lambing three times every two years.

As a meat animal, she claims they have no equal. The dark Tunis meat is quite distinctive from other mutton.

In New Hampshire she supplied a small restaurant. When her meat was not available and the restaurant had to substitute other lamb, the patrons complained. They wanted only “Jozi’s lamb.”

The Great Lakes Sheep and Wool Show and Sale is May 26-27 at the Wayne County Fairgrounds in Wooster. The sale will begin at 1 p.m. Sunday, and will include yearlings, fall lambs and spring lambs.

Breeds that have been consigned for sale include Columbia, Cheviot, Corriedale, Polled Dorset, Natural Color, Jacob, Hampshire, Polypay, Rambouillet, Shropshire, Romney, Targhee, Tunis, Scottish Black, and Suffolk cross.

For information contact Joan Hess at 937-597-5560.

Information on Tunis sheep is available through the National Tunis Sheep Registry at Web site at www.ezroane.com/ntsri/.

(Jackie Cummins can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at jcummins@farmanddairy.com.)

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