Originating from Egypt, the Damara fat-tailed sheep’s name refers to the part of Namibia where they have been kept for centuries. Demand for the meat, which has a unique taste and is regularly used in traditional Arab cuisine, has increased across the UK.
Anglesey-based CLA member Peter Williams is a year into a breeding project. “So far, so good,” Peter says confidently. “Ask me if it’s still going well in two months’ time.” The first formal report explains they’re easy to feed and grow at an acceptable rate. So far, they’ve displayed resistance to disease and pests, and breeding has been problem-free. They boast the distinctive large hindquarters and chunky, tapered tail sought after in their market, where they are worth three or four times the value of typical Welsh lamb.
Supported by the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) and the Welsh Government’s agriculture support resource Farming Connect, Peter Williams’ project partner Bedwyr Jones is a hill farmer from the Snowdonia foothills who also farms on Anglesey. They are joined by former government vet Tricia Sutton who shows Suffolks and is treasurer of the Sheep Veterinary Society. Tricia is monitoring the health and welfare of the project.
From a wider and long-term government perspective, one aspect of the initiative is to further improve the UK stock’s genetic pool. A reducing number of around 60 breed types now exist in Western Europe and problems will arise if diversity isn’t built-in. There are 1,000 breeds worldwide. “There’s 50 fat-tailed breed types alone,” says Peter. “We’ve chosen one which is already proven to be prolific and versatile.”
Peter farms 80 acres in Anglesey and normal stock levels on his land have been 300 ewes and some store cattle. The soil type here is sandy calcareous silt and loams. Dramatic Snowdon looms distantly across the Menai Strait but inland Anglesey gently undulates with exposed limestone outcrops here and there. It’s livestock country: grass grows well on an oceanic climate delivering some 153mm of rain and it has an average humidity of 84%.
A niche market
“It’s a niche market,” Peter explains. “Not for the UK supermarket shelves – but we’re looking at specialists such as Harrods and Fortnum’s who know their discerning customers. It’s a big dish at Muslim festivals.
We are gaining interest from the Middle Eastern embassies looking to serve Damara lamb at major events. The meat is lean and juicy and it has a distinctive flavour.
"The tail fat renders down in cooking and that plays a part in flavour and basting. We’re still in the process of understanding preparation and recipe.”
And it’s not just for the connoisseurs. Despite the name, fat-tailed sheep meat is low in saturated fats and offers the health benefits of a higher omega 3 to omega 6 fatty-acid ratio. Peter and his colleagues in the trial are looking to involve local meat specialist chefs to perfect the cuisine at the end of the project. “That we are looking into this shows how well it is going. We’re not ready yet to make any announcements about celebrity chefs, but we’d like to work with a Welsh meat specialist to appeal both to the niche market and also to raise awareness in the general audience.”
Peter’s making good use of an international farming career having spent several years in Saudi Arabia. “Sixty miles outside Riyadh I was working with over 30,000 sheep: New Zealand Romneys crossed with the fat tailed – all zero-grazed.” Subsequently, Peter worked with sheep in Australia and New Zealand before returning to North Wales in 1993.
The Damaras are as well-travelled. Their origins are thought to be the Nile Delta. They spread into the Middle East’s fertile crescent and as far south as the more fertile areas of Namibia bounded by the Namib and Kalahari deserts, west and east, respectively. Consequently, with a millennium or so head start on European species, there are some 50 breeds of fat-tailed sheep.
They are physically built for their climate: the distinctive tail stores vital nutrients for the dry season and there’s no fleece – they have hair which enables better temperature regulation. Their heads are small with a domed nose to resist sun burning and long ears provide ocular sun shade. “Some say they look like goats, but they don’t really,” Peter says, “They look like what they are!”
The test, of course, has been acclimatisation in North Wales. “We know how resilient they are in extreme conditions. Our main concern has been about the effects of temperate dampness: potential lameness, respiratory-issues and scour (livestock diarrhoea). We were able to import embryos and semen from Australia as they have a similar health status to the UK. A small number of pure-bred lambs were born in the first week of May from implanted embryos into surrogate mothers. Appropriately, Lleyn and also Romney and Texel crosses lambed about 10 days later.
They impregnated 50 and had a 75% success rate. Damaras can lamb more than once annually, “Not quite as many times as Dorsets,” says Peter. “We think we can get a second lambing in. The next stage will be to work out the best timing as lambs grow heavy to start with and this may be another dry-season genetic trait.
“Over half the new stock are male so they will need to be marketed while we continue to look at breeding both pures and crosses – and Bedwyr will play a vital role here,” Peter explains. “All of a sudden the project’s expanded into longer-term flock management and also downstream marketing.”
Stepping into another market
Hair sheep is the collective term for the many fat-tailed sheep breeds in tanning and shoemaking. Calf may be the chosen hide for quality shoes, but slippers, ladies lightweight fashion shoes and leather goods are often kid. Hair sheep is a practical alternative to kid – the skins are bigger and stronger and better able to cope with the forces applied when the skin is drawn tightly over a last.
High volumes are needed to create a viable option for the tanning industry but, as synthetic materials are replaced by greener solutions, the fat-tailed sheep project may find a new opportunity.