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Covering Dorpers

The South African Dorper Sheep breed has a unique covering that provides many benefits. Dorper sheep originated from a crossbreeding program and are half wool foundation and half hair foundation. This has resulted in a mixed fiber covering that provides the animal protection but does not require shearing. The Dorper was originally bred from two breeds, namely the Blackhead Persian and the Dorset Horn. The Blackhead Persian’s covering is completely hair, and the Dorset Horn is a medium wool breed. The Persian has every desirable characteristic, except carcass quality. It is hairy, very fertile and not only survives, but thrives in arid conditions. However, it is a small, fine-boned, flat-sided sheep with a fat tail. The tail contains a huge lump of fat. The Dorset has much less body fat, but has a good conformation for meat production, and is the least seasonal of that type of breed. Together as the Dorper they combine fertility, hardiness, and carcass quality. As you can imagine, the balance must always be maintained, and one of the clear indicators of that is the covering. The issue of covering, as such, was not taken much into consideration when the breed was developed, but it turned out to be very advantageous that the Dorper is now largely a self-shedding easy-care breed. The covering is unique in that it thickens to protect the animal in winter and sheds in summer. There is some variation in the breed as to the degree of shedding that may take place.

The Dorper breed standard calls for a “Short, Loose, and Light mixture of hair and wool with a clean kemp underline”. The breed standard classifies any animal with all hair or all wool as a cull. It is nice to see a flock of Dorpers exhibiting the light covering that is sought after by so many breeders. The Dorper covering is quite ingenious in that it provides necessary cover in winter and sheds in summer. All Dorpers should have a clean belly and reproductive area of ewes should be free from wool as well. The light mixture of hair and wool that may remain on some individuals year round provides protection from sun and insects. Some breeders notice that Dorper and Katahdin sheep with an all hair covering are more susceptible to insect damage. This may be more related to thickness of skin rather than covering. The Dorper skins are regarded as some of the finest in the world. They have a smooth grain and are used in the manufacture of high quality gloves and automotive seating. The skin structure is tighter and denser than goat skins or wool sheep skins, and the thickness of the skins allow them to be split. This means each Dorper lamb skin can be used to produce twice the square footage of leather compared to other pure hair sheep.

The Dorper covering seems to be misunderstood by some. Many breeders raising hair sheep of various breeds are quite troubled by the Dorper covering and site it as a reason for not raising them. Hair sheep such as St. Croix and Barbado are just that, true hair sheep, while the Katahdin and Dorper are composite breeds developed with some influence from traditional wool breeds. The Katahdin has been nicely bred to have almost 100 percent hair coat with some fine wooly fibers in winter. The Dorper has yet to have widespread selection pressure on covering with continuing emphasis on conformation and growth rate. Many Dorpers shed well with the exception of their top line which may carry some wool year round. With cheap labor available in South Africa Dorpers can be easily sheared every two or three years and the covering is not an issue. This has been a real turn off to some breeders looking for an easy care animal. In the United States today breeders are looking for rams with better covering and good shedding qualities while maintaining the conformation and growth rate that make the Dorper such a profitable animal.

This animals covering is quite practical but is still discriminated against by some who have yet to understand its value. The answer to those looking exclusively for an all hair animal is they are going to lose productivity selecting for one trait. One should rather look at the big picture and focus on the profitability of the flock instead of focusing on the fancy points such as covering. “In my opinion, hair can predominate as long as the meat and growth factors don’t suffer, but there will always have to be a little bit of wool to maintain the balance between hardiness and carcass quality” Tien Jordaan, South African Breeder and Judge. The Dorper has so much to offer with its many profitable traits it would be a shame for potential breeders to dismiss the breed on one trait. Most if not all Dorpers being bred in the United States are being raised with an emphasis on the ideal covering that sheds easily.

Shearing for shows and sales is common with the Dorper breeds and fitting is typical of any livestock at most if not all shows and exhibitions. When livestock are fitted to look their absolute best it should not be a reason to discriminate against the breed. Some breeds of livestock are fitted with quite a bit of fiber on them to hide structural faults. This is a major problem and is the primary reason for Dorpers to be slick sheared for competition. Most animals on exhibition at shows and sales will be lambs and at an early age shedding quality is difficult to determine. This is just another example of how conformation and growth rate should be the deciding factors for both the judge and buyer. Most Dorpers will shed their best when they are at least 18 months old and have been through the hot summer time.

The covering of Dorper and White Dorper sheep is a unique and somewhat complex trait that provides benefits over other breeds. To gain a first hand experience with the Dorper breeds contact a breeder in your area. They will be happy to show you how the Dorper has been working for them. Dorper breeders will tell you that it is nice to be able to rest easy on cold winter nights knowing your animals have protection from the elements, and as spring arrives you no longer have to deal with the shearing crew.


Philip Glass
Half-Circle Six Ranches