Friday, May 22, 2015

Colors and Patterns in Finnsheep

Finn sheep have the potential for several different color variations. These colors are buried deep in the genes of the sheep - both the ewes and the rams. White is probably the most common color found in Finn sheep, but there are other natural solid colors and variegated shades that show up in characteristic patterns. Finn sheep are genetically part of a group of sheep called the Northern Short-Tailed breeds. So they typically exhibit the same patterns and colors as the Shetland and Icelandic breeds. I cannot even try to explain color genetics. Detailed information is found on the International Finnsheep Breeders Registry. I simply offer the following short explanation of why our Finn sheep look the way they do. There are basically two factors at work to determine what we see: color and pattern.

We have two white Finn ewes. White is the dominate color for Finn sheep. To be called white, the fleece must be white and the skin and tongue pink. These fleeces are prized because they allow one to use dye without worrying about the presence of other natural color. But we also love the beautifully natural colors of our remaining ewes and rams.

Colored sheep are always genetically either black or brown. Black is dominant and brown recessive. Black lambs present black wool, with black skin and tongue and black hair on their face and legs. Brown lambs have brown wool and a dark reddish/brown tongue and skin. The hair on their face and legs is also brown.

A lamb could also present a "dilute" pattern, meaning that its solid black or brown colored fleece might become more pale as it grows, fading from black to grey or from brown to fawn as the new wool emerges.

Finn sheep have a couple of common patterns and markings. The badgerface marking exhibits badger "stripes" along either side of the face. The jaw, throat, chest, belly and legs and the inside of their ears will be dark colored as well - black if they are colored black and brown if they are brown. The fleece will be usually be a light to medium variegated color.

The HST pattern (head, socks, tail) shows white markings such as lines, stripes, stars, spots, patches, or a blaze on the head, legs and/or feet, and tail. Our little black rams, born this year, are HST. Their little tails and feet look like they were dipped in white paint! Usually the white marking appears on all three spots (HST) or in some combination. These sheep are considered solid colored sheep but with the HST marking.

A "piebald" marking is more rare and is not actually a pattern since it can occur in either color and with other patterns. It will not appear in a true white sheep. Pie-bald exhibits irregular white spots in the fleece section of the body of the sheep. The spots could be large, even very large. Our all white ram has one small spot on his rear hip. This means that he is actually a "black" sheep with an enormous white patch! What is unique about the pie-bald is that the white colored wool grows from pink skin and the colored wool from colored skin. It is a recessive marking, meaning that both the ram and the ewe must carry the gene in order for the resulting lamb to exhibit the marking.

Pheomelanin is the presence of a peach or tan color in a newborn Finn lamb. This color is often found in the hair on the legs or face of the lamb. It isn't actually genetic color, but rather a pigmentation that is usually gone by about six months. Our little white lambs, born to Nutmeg this year, have this coloring on their legs.

The patterns and colors of our colored Finn sheep are fascinating. Color genetics and breeding for color and pattern can be quite complicated. I leave all of those decisions to Kerry and just happily wait to see what appears when the lambs are born.


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