A long-fibred, crinkled fleece, spiralling horns, long, thin tail and black markings about the face and mouth. Characteristic features of Turcana sheep. Photo by Darren Naish.

I’m about as interested in domestic animals as I am in non-domesticated ones. Sheep of various kinds have been discussed on Tet Zoo a few times, and right now I want to say a few brief things about a breed I recently saw on several occasions in Romania – the Turcana or Tsurcana, a highly variable, hardy and economically important sheep that has a long, crinkled wool, spiralling horns and a narrow, dorsally convex face. This sheep is associated with the Carpathian Mountains and is farmed today in Romania, Ukraine, Moldavia, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Poland and the Balkan countries. The majority – over 4.2 million (Padeanu et al. 2004) of them (6 million according to some sources) – occur in Romania where they’ve been economically important for centuries. Over 50% of the sheep in Romania belong to this breed (Ilişiu et al. 2012).

A group of Turcana sheep. Shepherd and sheepdogs are nearby. Photo by Darren Naish.

Turcanas are white, grey or black-fleeced sheep with coarse wool, the longest hairs of which are 12-36 cm long (these long hairs grow over a denser underwool of thinner hairs, mostly 10-19 cm long). The similarity of the Turcana with the better-known Scottish blackface is often noted. Dark markings frequently surround the eyes and lips, and may also occur elsewhere on the face and also on the limbs. Rams are usually about 60-80 kg while ewes are 40-55 kg. About 50% of ewes have horns.

A Turcana sheep encountered in the field at Pui, Transylvania. This sheep is not three-legged - it's just a quirk of angle. Photo by Darren Naish.

Turcana milk is used for feta, yoghurt and various cheeses, their wool is often used in the manufacture of oriental carpets, and their meat is widely eaten and exported. They're said to be exceptionally hardy and resistant to disease and appear to be closely related to several other breeds that originated in the Baltic region (like the Skudde), the Mediterranean (like the Sardinian sheep and Pinzirita), and western Europe (like the Lincoln, Drysdale and Scottish blackface).

Several of these breeds belong to the so-called Valachian group of sheep, often termed ‘Zackel Group’ sheep. This latter name is apparently incorrect because it's based on the name used for spiral-horned sheep from Egypt, not Europe. The term ‘Valachian’ (used by Darwin during the 1860s, and probably by other authors of the time) perhaps refers to use of these sheep by the Valach (or Vlach) people of Romania and Moldova (Drăgănescu & Grosu 2010). The alternative spelling Wallachian is used as well, since the region of Romania concerned is historically termed Wallachia or Walachia.

Drăgănescu & Grosu's (2010) working hypothesis on the affinities of Valachian sheep. The paper is freely available online if you want to see a larger version of this diagram.

Valachian sheep are thought to have descended from ancient Early Scythian sheep, a coiled-horned, long-tailed sheep (sometimes termed Ovis aries rustica, sometimes O. a. longicauda) domesticated about 400 BCE. Drăgănescu & Grosu (2010) proposed that the Mediterranean and western European breeds mentioned above descended from an ancestral Early Scythian stock, as did the Balkan-Carpathian group that includes the Turcana and related Dinaric and Macedonian sheep breeds. The creation of numerous local variants or ‘sub-breeds’ of the Turcana and similar breeds – combined with confusion over the terminology used for of all these sheep – makes it different to work out how they’re related, and how they’ve been moved around by people. Maybe additional, molecular work has been done. Pariset et al. (2006) documented the presence of wide genetic variation on a range of sheep breeds including Turcanas, so genetic data has been collected and could be analysed. On that note, surprisingly little is written about the evolution and domestication history of modern sheep breeds: books and articles tend to discuss Neolithic sheep and the contribution that ancient mouflon (O. musimon and O. orientalis) made to the domestic sheep gene-pool, but that’s often as far as it goes.

There’s one more thing to say about the subject of sheep and Romania. Sheep and shepherding and the so-called transhumance system is ubiquitous in Romania, and the shepherd is a fundamental part of Romanian identity, this despite a history of unfair treatment, increasing urbanisation and economic challenge. Thanks to shepherds, dogs of several kinds have been moved across the land as well. I aim to talk about humans, dogs and transhumance at some point in the future. Incidentally, Romania's shepherding heritage has recently become better known to its more urbanised population thanks to Vodafone's 2014 advert featuring Ghita the Social Shepherd (Ghita is here on facebook and here on twitter).

Shepherds are a constant presence in the green spaces of Romania (and elsewhere in eastern Europe). These sheep are mostly Turcanas. Three dogs of mixed ancestry are in shot as well - two are corgi-crosses. Photo by Darren Naish.

Anyway, neat sheep.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on sheep (all now very dated), see...

Refs - -

Drăgănescu, C. & Grosu, H. 2010. Valachian (Zackel) heritage philetic sheep group – a taxonomic problem. In Scientific Papers of the Romanian Academy DAGENE, pp. 1-7.

Ilişiu, E., Dărăban, S., Radu, R., Pădeanu, I., Ilişiu, V.-C., Pascal, C. & Rahmann, G. 2012. The Romanian Tsigai sheep breed, their potential for organic cheese production. Agriculture and Forestry Research, Special Issue 362, 250-254.

Padeanu, I., Sauer, I., Sauer, M., Voia, O. & Dumitrescu, G. 2004. Evolution of the body weight and absolute growing rate of Turcana x Ile de France hybrid from lambing up to 5 months of age. Biotechnology in Animal Husbandry 20, 91-96.

Pariset, L., Cappuccio, I., Ajmone-Marsan, P., Bruford, M., Dunner, S., Cortes, O., Erhardt, G., Prinzenberg, E.-M., Gutscher, K., Joost, S., Pinto-Juma, G., Nijman, I. J., Lenstra, J. A., Perez, T., Valentiniand. A. & Econogene Consortium 2006. Characterization of 37 breed-specific single-nucleotide polymorphisms in sheep. Journal of Heredity 97, 531-534.