One of the most striking and unusual features of Jacobs is that all of them have horns -- both the rams (males) and the ewes (females). Jacobs may be either 2-horned or 4-horned, regardless of their parents' type. The four-horned and two-horned strains are inseparably intertwined in the Jacob breed. Four-horned rams are the most striking in looks, with two upright center horns as long as two feet in length, and two side horns curving down beside the cheeks. Two-horned rams develop the classic double-curled horns displayed by some other breeds. Ewes always have shorter, more delicate horns than rams.
Another striking feature of Jacobs is their coloring: they are white sheep with black spots. Breed-specific markings occur as black patches on the muzzle, eyes, neck, horns, ears, knees, hocks, and hooves. The desired Jacob face is referred to as "badger faced," with black cheeks and muzzle, and a white blaze down the nose. Other markings occur randomly throughout the back and sides. The "ideal" ratio of white to black is from 50-50 to 60-40. But as a primitive breed, Jacobs carry quite a bit of variation in the ratio. Each sheep has distinctive individual markings, allowing the farmer to identify the animals at a glance.
If you have a small farm and are thinking of raising just a few sheep, consider Jacobs. Why? Jacobs have playful personalities and a striking appearance. They are strong and hardy, resistant to parasites and foot problems. Jacob ewes lamb easily and have strong mothering instincts. The Jacob fleece is prized for its distinct natural color and because it is soft and light with little grease.
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Jacob Sheep are named after the reference to spotted sheep in the Biblical story of Jacob and his dealings with his father-in-law Laban. In fact, the breed was developed only 350-400 years ago in England as an ornament for the "parks" surrounding several large estates. The name Jacob Sheep was attached to the sheep only in the last century. Prior to the 20th century, they were called Piebald (spotted or patched) sheep. The true origins of the Jacob are something of a mystery, but we believe their black and white coloring originated with Moorish sheep brought from Spain or Africa, and their four-horned characteristic from Norse sheep originating in Scandinavia or the Northern Scottish islands. All of the Jacobs in the U.S. originate from just a few importations in the past several decades.
The American Jacob is designated as "threatened" by The Livestock Conservancy, based on fewer than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States and an estimated global population less than 5,000. In North America, Jacobs also are considered a "primitive" or "heritage" breed because efforts have been made to conserve the breed's small size, large horns, and distinctive markings.
Because you cannot know the genetics of an animal by looking at it, the Progeny Test is the best way to ensure that Jacob sheep are purebred. Based on the genetic law that states "like begets like," the progeny testing process evaluates a sheep's offspring for conformance to the Jacob breed standard. Only if it reproduces acceptable offspring when bred to two different registered Jacobs can the sheep in question be called a "Jacob." Not all spotted, horned sheep are purebred Jacobs. According to The Livestock Conservancy, "Spotted sheep of all shapes and sizes, including spotted Jacob-Dorset and other crosses, have been sold as Jacobs to unsuspecting buyers." When purchasing Jacob sheep for breeding, make sure they are registered with an organization that aims to conserve the breed characteristics. The Jacob Sheep Conservancy, the Jacob Sheep Breeders Association, and the American Jacob Sheep Registry are the major registries for Jacob Sheep in the United States.