Sudan desert sheep: Their origin, ecology and production potential (1)

Mohamed E. Mufarrih

The author is Under-Secretary, Ministry of Animal Resources. s
This article traces the obscure origin of the Sudan Desert sheep, a valuable meat and milk producer which has been owned for centuries by nomadic Arab tribes in northern Sudan. Its meat is greatly preferred by local consumers and is exported mostly to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as to other Near East oil-producing countries, thereby contributing to the Sudan’s export earnings. However, its potential for high production of both meat and milk is hampered by seasonal shortages of water and grazing and prevalence of disease.
The Sudan Desert sheep is one of the leading mutton and milk-producing types in the tropics (Tothill, 1948) but its importance is little known due to lack of publicity. They comprise more than 60 percent of the sheep population of the Sudan and almost 100 percent of its sheep exports. Together with their cross progeny, the Watish and Baggara types, they supply approximately 9095 percent of the slaughter sheep in the northern regions of the country.
Sudan Desert sheep are reared strictly within the semi-desert belt of the Sudan, in association with camels. They are owned exclusively by nomadic tribes of Arab origin or others closely related to them in the region. Because of their nomadic existence their origin has been difficult to trace.
Mason (1951) has classified West African livestock and suggested the possible ancestry of sheep breeds or types in the region. Davidson (1959) stated that no well-known people in West Africa are without their legends of remote eastern or North African origins, and he suggested that these people might have maintained their individual breeding stocks intact.
It is well established that nomadic Arab tribes entered the Sudan through the west and northwestern borders via northern Chad or the southern Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, reaching their ultimate destination at the River Nile (Churchill, 1899). Although some individual tribes might have remained for many years in the Sultanates of Waddai, Gimir, Masalat, Borno and Fur, their sheep do not resemble the Asian or North African types.
This Arab type of sheep, presumably owned by these tribes, with its woolly coat and short legs, could not have endured the stress of intensive solar radiation and prolonged migration in search of grazing and water or sudden attacks by the enemy. To obtain an animal which would satisfy these requirements, while retaining the desirable characteristics of their original sheep, these Arab tribes might have decided to cross-breed their sheep with other types which possessed the required traits.
In the Lake Chad basin and further north live the northern Fulani tribes, the Balami, whose sheep are uniformly white, and the Auda, whose sheep are white with a brown or black neck and front body. Both breeds have a large frame, long legs and long, thin tails. The Arab tribes, during their east and southeast migration, most likely associated with the Fulani tribes and crossbred their own sheep with the Balami and Auda desert types. This breeding operation might have been exercised and maintained in mutual accord, producing through selection the desirable characteristics which eventually stabilized in the appearance of the unique Sudan Desert sheep.
Although this is the author’s personal assumption, it would seem to be the most logical explanation for the appearance of this type of sheep. The assumption is supported by the fact that Fulani sheep are most likely the long-legged and long-tailed sheep (Williamson and Payne, 1965) reported to have been forced out of Egypt by the later entry of fat-tailed and coarse-woolled sheep.
It is worth mentioning that Sudan Desert sheep and Fulani sheep undergo similar methods of management and exist in a similar ecological habitat. Many of their body features, such as the shape of the head and face, length of body and texture of coat, are similar. Sudan Desert sheep, however, possess a thicker tail and fuller rump. These valuable characteristics might be attributed to partial inheritance from their Asian ancestors.
Ecological habitat
Sudan Desert sheep are strictly confined to the semiarid climatic zone. Their homeland is roughly bound in the south by latitude 12°N, although this southern border has recently retreated further south due to the southward advance of the desert. The western border is marked by the range of rocky hills from Jebel Marra in the south to the Zaghawa plateau in the north. To the east the area extends to the Red Sea hills. To the north it fades away with an undulating border in the Nubian desert.
Topographically this area is dominated by sandy plains and stabilized sand dunes in the west, extensive plains of dark cracked soil in the centre and a strip of sandy plains with stabilized sand dunes in the east. A few sparse flocks of smaller animals with the features of Sudan Desert sheep can be encountered in the Red Sea hills and on the coastal plains.
This area undergoes very intensive solar radiation from March to the end of June and has a mild, moist temperature from July to the end of October. In winter, from November to February, the temperature is mild during the day and cold at night. The coastal ranges of the Red Sea receive winter showers which stimulate green grazing which varies according to the amount of rainfall. Occasionally this coastal area suffers complete drought for two or more successive years when only hardy camels and goats can survive. In the main desert sheep land, the rainfall varies from 75 mm in the far north to 400 mm in the south.
The vegetation varies from a mixture of grasses and herbs with no woody vegetation whatsoever, to a scattering of scrub bush interspersed with bare areas.
Distinctive features
The most distinctive features of this sheep are the shape of the head, face and tail, and posture. The forehead is convex and slopes downward into a Roman nose. The ears are rather large and flabby. The neck is long and thin in ewes and wethers; in rams the neck is rather thick, with a thin dewlap extending from chin to brisket. The coat is hairy and of varying colours, which indicate the tribal ownership or locality and particular variety of animals. All females and most males are polled. Some males, however, have horns varying from bud size to very large, resembling those of Fulani Balami and Auda rams. The length and shape of the tail of the pure Sudan Desert type differs from its cross progenies and other types of sheep in the country. It has a wide base which hides the female genital organs and thins down gradually toward the tip which droops well below the hocks. In healthy sheep, the tail carries much fat which is evenly dispersed down both sides.
Sudan Desert sheep are generally described as long-legged. The length of the legs is due to management and climate. In the northern ranges where the scarcity of grazing imposes walking long distances, the sheep have developed longer legs and a light body. The sheep of the southern regions (such as the Hamari variety), have shorter legs and a heavy body, for here range grazing and drinking water are abundant, grazing distance is small and the seasonal migration range is comparatively short.
The locality and tribal origin of Desert sheep are identified in local markets by their colours. In the central and southeastern part of the irrigated Gezira and Rahad, the sheep population is dominated by the Dubasi variety. These carry a black patch on the back (saddle), the muzzle and legs. The rest of the coat is white with coarse hairy fibres. Further north toward Khartoum, on the eastern bank of the Blue Nile and the Nile, the Shugur variety predominates. These are uniformly yellowish brown. The Hamari variety in southwestern Kordofan and southeastern Darfur are predominantly brown and dark brown. The Kabashi of Northern Kordofan and Northern Darfur, the Shambali of eastern Kordofan, the Gash and eastern Butana are all multicoloured.
The different colours of tribal varieties might have been brought about through prolonged selection toward colours preferred by particular groups or tribes because it is doubtful whether these experienced herdsman would have been aware of any possible relation between colour and productivity. As the sheep fibres are utilized in nomadic home industry for weaving carpets and nomadic tents, the colour preference of the weaver might have played a vital role in this respect.
The estimated total number of Sudan Desert sheep and the distribution of the main varieties for 1980-81 are given in Table 1. All estimates made during or after the 1982-85 drought period should be treated with the utmost reservation as large numbers of cattle and sheep in all the northern regions of the country were lost as a result of starvation or sale. Since then no comprehensive overall survey has been conducted to give acceptable estimates for the present population, despite the fact that a very high lambing rate and low mortality were reported during the post-drought period from all northern regions.

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