Continuing our tour of Europe for Wovember words, today we are in Bulgaria, discovering the endangered Karakachan sheep. In Bulgarian the word for sheep is овца, or – for non-Cyrillic readers – ovca.

This breed of sheep – along with the Karakachan horse and the Karakachan dog – is a focus for The Bulgarian Biodiversity Preservation Society, Semperviva: a non-governmental, biodiversity conservation organization. Semperviva’s mission to preserve the Karakachan breeds is supported by The SAVE (Safeguard for Agricultural Varieties in Europe) Foundation.

Karakachan sheep © Nicholas Lescureux and used with kind permission. Found here on Flickr
Karakachan sheep © Nicolas Lescureux and used with kind permission. Found here on Flickr

The following is taken from this report, in which SAVE explain the significance of these animals:

The Karakachan sheep, Karakachan horse and Karakachan dog are local breeds, formed on the Bulgarian lands as a result of the most primitive type of livestock breeding: nomad livestock breeding. The Karakachans are Balkan nomad people and livestock breeders, considered by most historians as descendants of ancient Thracian livestock breeding societies. It is considered that – owing to their extremely conservative breeding traditions – Karakachan people have saved the most primitive and pure domesticated forms of animals – a sheep type “tzakel”, a mountain horse and a livestock-guarding dog.

Why these three breeds are so valuable and need to be saved?

These are some of the oldest forms of domestic animals in Europe. They are the genetic link between the modern high-productive breeds and their wild predecessors. These three breeds have been selected in a way and in conditions which cannot be repeated or recreated. This process has produced breeds with very high vitality and excellent adaptability to different living conditions. They almost never get ill and are totally unpretentious to the food base. They have strong bodies with good proportions, vital temperament and proverbial toughness. The sheep the horse and the dog must be saved for the research purposes in the fields of immunology, nutrition, reproduction, etc. The rich genetic potential which these breeds carry, is of vital importance to the future of agriculture. They have been and will be unique for the specific, local conditions, because their economic potential is in their specific suitability for otherwise unproductive, mountainous areas.

For example the Karakachan sheep is resistant to illness and able to survive on the hard and severe mountainous terrain and conditions. It is adapted to long trips on high-mountainous trails. The wool is used in local handicrafts to make traditional products.

Karakachan sheep dog and cat buddy © Nicolas Lescureux and used with kind permission. Found here on Flickr
Karakachan sheep dog and cat buddy © Nicolas Lescureux and used with kind permission. Found here on Flickr

Karakachan sheep (Karakachanska ovca in bulg.)

The Karakachan sheep is accepted as the most typical and most primitive, coarse wool sheep type “tzakel” in Bulgaria; it is closest to the wild European mouflon sheep. It is small (about 57 cm at withers) and typically has a short, thin tail. Its wool is coarse and long (up to 26 cm). The coloration is grey-black and brown-black, but very seldom white. It is a very vital and energetic animal; tough, disease-resistant, and can survive on poor grazing ground.

Factors influencing extinction of the breed

In the past, the Karakachan sheep was one of the most widespread breeds throughout Bulgaria. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were more than 500,000 animals. In 1957, when farming practices were nationalised, numbers fell to 160,000. At that time the socialist government also decided to replace the local breeds of sheep with foreign, fine-fleeced breeds and, as a consequence of this state policy, local breeds became massively crossbred with these imported animals.

According to the Red Data List of the autochthon forms of domestic animals, included in the National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy of Bulgaria (1994), the Karakachan sheep is categorized as endangered. The total population is listed at less than 2000 animals. However, research into extant flocks – many of which display clear signs of hybridisation and cross-breeding – reveal that the numbers of actual animals similar by phenotype to the original Karakachan sheep are even smaller.

During expeditions by BBPS-Semperviva members in search of aboriginal sheep, isolated individuals were found with livestock breeders in some mountainous settlements of Rila, Phodopes and Pirin mountains; the only compact flock of Karakachan sheep which was found (about 40 animals), is owned by an old Karakachan man from West Phodopes mountain. Generally, the complete population of the Karakachan sheep in the country is estimated at around 200 individuals which means this breed is now considered to be critically endangered.

Karakachan sheep © Nicholas Lescureux and used with kind permission. Found here on Flickr
Karakachan sheep © Nicolas Lescureux and used with kind permission. Found here on Flickr

We are thrilled to discover the Karakachan sheep breed along with the Karachan sheep dog, pictured here, that is its traditional protector. Research also led us to this description of Farm Peren in Bulgaria in which Karakachan breeds are being maintained today; the description gives a really clear and fascinating insight as to how nomadic shepherding might continue to be practiced in some form today. We are very keen to learn from anyone who has worked with the wool of Karakachan sheep.

4 thoughts on “Bulgaria’s endangered Karakachanska ovca

  1. One of your more fascinating stories. And it shines a light on ancient wool traditions trying to hang on. I learned a lot. And such a beautifully photographed video! I pray we can find a way to support such traditional shepherding and preserve this rare breed.

  2. Thank you so much for the great article and wonderful pictures Karakachan Sheep. Hope to hear more about them in the future. Their wool would be wonderful for rug hooking. We need to save these breeds.

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