History of the Florida Cracker Sheep

The descendants of the Florida Cracker Sheep were brought to Florida when the Spanish founded St. Augustine in September 1565 by Fernando Menendez de Aviles. They were probably Churro – the common sheep of Spain at that time. The contract with Phillip the Second, King of Spain called for 200 cows, 200 horses, 200 pigs and 400 sheep. In 1586 when Sir Frances Drake drove the remaining settlers from St. Augustine they did not take the livestock with them. These remaining animals had to adapt to Florida's harsh conditions: the heat, humidity, hurricanes, wildfires and tropical storms. The sheep also had to survive the many Florida predators including alligators, bobcats, feral pigs, panthers and black buzzards. Their descendants became our famous “Cracker” livestock.

The almost feral animals roamed woods and scrub for 450 years until Florida ended the open range at the end of WWII. During this time period once a year cowhunters on horseback would go and gather the Florida Cracker sheep for shearing and ram lamb harvesting. There were attempts to introduce various breeds of “improved” sheep to the herds of Florida Cracker sheep. The farmers wanted to add size for larger meat production, but there is only a hint of the Tunis sheep left showing in the face and reddish color of some of the Florida Cracker sheep. Mother Nature is a merciless selector. The Florida Crackers were considered a crossbreed which developed through natural selection, under Florida conditions, over a 300 year period. As settlers came into Florida in the late 1800's many of them gathered up some of these almost feral sheep and kept them as their own livestock.

Around 1870 the Wilson Family established a ranch north of Okeechobee near Yeehaw Junction and on that ranch they had a flock of Florida Cracker Sheep. Once a year the Wilsons would pull the flock in from the field and shear, band ram lambs that would be harvested next year for meat, harvest the wethers, cull any ewes needing it and release them back into the field until the next year. In 2007 when some unforeseen events happened this flock was almost lost completely to the slaughter house but Mortimer Wilson contacted a few members of the Florida Cracker Sheep Association that he knew appreciated the breed to save the 249 ewes and 20 rams from the slaughter house.

In the early 1900's the Florida Cracker Sheep came very close to becoming completely extinct because many families in Florida had the sheep for wool production purposes so when the prices in the wool market dropped drastically the majority of the families got rid of their sheep. Also at the same time there was a huge loss of sheep due to parasites.

The University of Florida established a flock of Florida Cracker Sheep. In 1968 Anthony Frances Jilek used Florida Crackers, referred to as Florida Natives, as one of his 2 breeds in his graduate study titled "Experimental Evidence of resistance to Haemonchus Contortus Infection in Sheep" otherwise commonly known as barber pole worms. The University gave the Blackwater River Reserve area several Florida Cracker because the Reserve was doing an experiment on what would be more cost effective to keep areas mowed, sheep or equipment. The sheep were found to be more economical but soon funding decreased for the reserve and they had to sell the sheep. The flock spent 3 years on the Reserve.

The Aldridge family had Florida Crackers for many generations until the family sold the flock​ and the new owners are trying to build the numbers up in this line because they almost became extinct.

In 1981 Hedy Havel started her herd of Florida Crackers. Hedy worked closely with Jim Wing. They often swapped rams between each other.

In 1981 Penn Y Caereu started with Florida Cracker Sheep. Leida Jones has a closed herd and she has mostly University of Florida line but she was among the Association members that helped save the flock at the Wilson farm.

Florida Cracker sheep moved from Study to Critical on The Livestock Conservatory List in 2013. Florida Cracker sheep descend from imports by the Spanish, were range managed until well into the 20th century, and are exquisitely adapted to their region. Although for many years Florida Cracker sheep were clustered with Gulf Coast Native sheep, a recent genetic study (Kijas et al., 2012. PLoS ONE 7:e41508) indicated that the two breeds are as distantly related to each other as to the Spanish breeds from which they descend. .

Article by Diana and Chad Carey - Rockin C Ranch