JUDGING KARAKUL SHEEP - Their conformation and fiber

By Letty Klein

(From the Karakul Judging Workshop June 22, 2003 held at Dee and Rey Perera's farm, Boonville, MO)

The Karakul, known world-wide for its fur, wool and meat, is unique with its exotic carriage, hardy and vigorous constitution, intelligence, common-sense instincts, independence, long legs for traveling, and of course a characteristic tail for fat storage.

Less than 90 animals were originally imported between 1908 and 1929, most were from the mountainous desert regions of southwestern Asia around the city of Bukhara, the last importation was from Germany.  Only about 40 were ewes, the rest rams.  Many died during quarantine or were of poor quality.  Cross-breeding and top-crossing began right away to increase numbers for the fur trade.  Therefore the American Karakul carries a little Lincoln, Persian, Tunis, Navajo, Cotswold, and etc. with still noticeable breed variations across the country.

Sheep breeders and judges must know how a "top-line" should look, why straight legs are important, and why poor growth-rates and below-average-smarts are not good for the breed.  Karakul breeders should know this too, only the Karakul is built completely different than the conventional sheep breeds.  Our sheep are not just coat-hangers for pretty wool...there is something very unique underneath.  Karakuls should possess hidden traits, ones that we as shepherds should be aware of, but judges can't detect.  These include:  good health, seasonal survivability, produce good sized lambs on reasonable feed, out of season breeding, ease of lambing, good mothering instincts, milkiness, lasting teeth, good feet, and finally resistance to disease.  (Figure 1) (Click to view picture)

CONFORMATION.  The Karakul stands apart from other breeds with its conformation and fiber.  Their conformation is different, perhaps an adaptation to the unique environment of south western Asia and the mountainous desert regions around the Caspian Sea.  Conformation is the way an animal is put-together, so that the animal's health, well-being, longevity, and productivity are not compromised.  Conformation is a combination of soundness, structure, balance, and breed character; we will discuss each one as they apply to an "Ideal" Karakul. (Figure 2) (Click to view picture)

SOUNDNESS is the ability to move and live painlessly, efficiently and productively.  It requires good condition, good health, and a firm foundation.  This means sound feet and a square stance, as well as all the right parts in good working condition and in the right places, I call them the six-T's:

    Top-line - high shoulders, hips, and a sloping rump, with an indention in front of and in back of the shoulder point.  The loin should be the highest point of the back. (Figure 2) (Click to view picture)

    Teeth - defective mouths are not thrifty.

    Toes - splay toes are common and probably helpful in a desert environment, they should be dainty, level and 'up'. (Figure 3) (Click to view picture)

    Tails - Large U-shaped with indented tail bone and often as wide as the body.

    Testicles - Carried high to protect from desert heat. (Figure 4) (Click to view picture)

    Teats - Two well-formed and functional with good placement on the udder.

STRUCTURE, or structural correctness, is the way parts are put together or arranged to form the whole animal.  This includes volume, capacity, or depth of body with plenty of room for the heart, lungs, rumen, and lambs.  The Karakul head should be long and narrow with a prominent forehead.  Hair covering should be glossy and free from wool.  Ears can range form 'no-ear', to tiny V-shaped, to large U-shaped, and anything in between, as long as they point naturally downward and slightly forward.  Large ears should be thin and pliable, while small ears should be thicker.  Eyes should be wide set in prominent eye sockets.  A narrow, arched, lustrous nose should end in a narrow muzzle, with narrow nostrils and thin lips. (Figure 5) (Click to view picture)

    The neck should be long, thin, carried semi-erect, and joining the shoulders with a pronounced curve.  Shoulders should be pointed at the top, slantingly set, and thinly fleshed.  The chest should be deep and narrow but with a large lung capacity, ending with a narrow V-shaped brisket.  The back should be long and narrow with prominent spinal bones common in primitive breeds, with the highest point at the loin.  Hips should be wide and prominent, with the rump long and sloping, but free from excess fat. (Figure 2) (Click to view picture)

    Long, fine, slender boned legs should be straight, come squarely out of each corner of the body, and end with strong pasterns and small feet. (Figure 6) (Click to view picture)  Rear legs on ewes should be wide set, allowing plenty of room for a full udder. (Figure 9) (Click to view picture) Some of the earliest text indicates that cow-hocked ewes were better pelt producers, today this is not a desirable trait. (Figure 10) (Click to view picture)

    Horns on rams, if present, should have at least two fingers width between the horns where they enter the skull and should be well set away from the head. (Figure 7) (Click to view picture) Horns should not touch the jaw or in anyway hinder or endanger the life of the animal. (Figure 8) (Click to view picture)

Balance is a state of bodily equilibrium and appearance. -- As observed from a distance.  The gait of a Karakul should tract straight with long free ground covering strides; movement should be alert, nimble, fluid and active -- Spirited!  The symmetry is important with a harmonious arrangement of parts in correct proportions, a fluid motion with smoothness, grace, and continuity -- Elegance!  A Karakul should have an attitude of style and eye-appeal.  This style and elegance is similar to other species from the same part of the world:  the Arabian horse and the Afghan hound. (Figure 11) (Click to view picture)

Breed Characteristics should reflect the Karakuls survival and evolvement in its unique environment.  Breed guidelines to this uniqueness should be based on logic and common sense, but should not be so narrow and restricting as to jeopardize diversity.  Rams should look like rams, masculine and rugged, while ewes should be dainty, feminine, and pretty.  (Figure 12) (Click to view picture)

FIBER Hair covering should be smooth and sleek on face, ears, and legs with a glossy metallic sheen and free from wool, but may be longer and wavier on the poll.

The fleece should have a natural luster with a long open crimp or wave falling naturally into locks.  While fleece can be variable in coarseness, it should be free from cotting and part easily to the skin. (Figure 13)  Fleeces should exhibit some degree of double-coatedness. (Figure 14) (Click to view picture)

The dominant fleece color in the Karakul is black (Arabi), with recessive genetics for pink-roan (Guligas), red-brown (Kambar), (Figures 15 and Figure 16) (Click to view picture) and gray (Sharazi--which is a very even bluish intermixture of black and white fibers).  Rare agouti coloration, called Sur, can occur in the newborn.  The Sur has a brown base with a pale frosted metallic effect on the tips of the birth coat varying from bronze to gold, platinum, or amber. (Figure 17) (Click to view picture)

Karakul breeders are proud of their breed, and can get discouraged in the show ring when judges fail to recognize the merits and uniqueness of this rare breed with such a long and important history.

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