Glasgow Zoo Park
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Zwartbles sheep

Domestic sheep

Barbary Sheep Ammotragus lervia

The Barbary herd 2001
Barbary Sheep Ammotragus lervia
Habitat: Semi-arid lands.

Status: Vulnerable in their native habitat.

Located: Native to the Atlas Mountains of North Africa

Lifespan: Barbary Sheep live between 10-12 years.

Native to the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, every Barbary Sheep in Britain is descended from a group imported by London Zoo in 1842. Barbary Sheep owe their name to the old name for the North African region, the Barbary coast.. They are now considered to be genetically identical (homozygous). Adapted to parched, mountainous areas with little cover they will often " freeze " if disturbed, rather than run away, when their deep brown colour can make them, even in our enclosure, sometimes difficult to see.

They become surprisingly active in the early evening, when they will indulge in racing and leaping. Males will often spar with each other, clashing their massive horns with a loud thud. The horns are honeycombed inside, and their rich blood supply would assist cooling in their native Africa.

Glasgow ZooPark acquired five in 1968 from Edinburgh Zoo, and has bred over sixty animals since then. Glasgow bred Barbary Sheep can be found in zoos as far afield as Bahrain and Singapore, as well as Blackpool and Comrie Wildlife Park in Perthshire .

Classified by IUCN the World Conservation Union as Vulnerable in their native habitat. Ironically, there are thousands of Barbary Sheep living in semi-liberty in canyons and arroyos of the semi-arid lands of Arizona and New Mexico ; haven been released by ranchers anxious to establish a species outwith USA legislation protecting native species and therefore extend the trophy hunting season to all year-round.

Thought-provoking Questions:

Is Dolly the world famous cloned sheep really a new scientific breakthrough given that these Barbary Sheep are virtually clones too?

Where animals are bred to provide sport for hunters, and would not otherwise exist at all, is their life of any intrinsic value?

What is man's relationship with the creatures with whom we share the planet?



by Richard O'Grady .

Barbary sheep, or Aoudads, are popular zoo exhibits across Europe, usually being used as the focal point of an artificial rock or mountain exhibit, where in numbers they create an arresting sight.

In the UK, since the closure of the Mappin Terraces at Regent's Park, the closure of Windsor Safari park and the decision by Edinburgh Zoo to discontinue keeping this species, opportunities for viewing Barbaries at all, never mind in inspiring surroundings, are few and far between. Dudley, Paignton, Blackpool, and here in Glasgow spring immediately to mind, plus some in very small numbers in a handful of other zoos and wildlife parks.

In the 60's and early 70's, the Barbaries on the Mappins were magnificent. Forty or fifty of these sand coloured animals, as alike as peas in a pod with sleek shiny coats and short hooves, and multitudinous youngsters made an indelible impression. When I commented one day in 1974 (I think) to my companion, the then curator Dr. Michael Brambell, on their general condition, he replied:

" Yes, interesting isn't it, especially as they have had no fresh blood since their first importation from abroad when the Mappins first opened. "

Nearby were a group of Mouflon, and he emphasised that the splashes of white here and there on their faces and shins, were sure-fire evidence of the introduction of domestic sheep blood in the past, " Not like the ones at Whipsnade, which have been kept absolutely pure since the thirties. "

At Glasgow, the Barbary sheep are all descended from five animals acquired from Edinburgh Zoo in 1968. These in turn were descended from animals from Regent's Park acquired in the 1920's. When I first saw the Edinburgh animals in 1965 they were kept in one of the top enclosures on Corstorphine hill, mid-way between the large carnivores to the east and the camels to the west. Kept on an earth paddock, under trees, with just a few rock outcrops, overgrown hooves were a persistent problem, and in wet weather the paddock quickly became unsightly. The Zoo stopped keeping this species in the late 70's, early 80's.

By 1972/73, from five, Glasgow's group had built up to nearly twenty animals. In 1974/75 we supplied Cyril Grace at the newly opened Blackpool Zoo, with quite a sizeable group of six or eight animals. The other significant herds, were at Dudley, Paignton and Windsor Safari Park. All originated from Regent's Park stock it is believed. The Dudley animals today consist of at least twenty kept entirely on concrete and stone in quite a small area. Their physical condition seems excellent. Paignton's group is usually maintained quite small. Windsor's group originated, I think, from Glasgow via Ravensden and at one time shared a drive through enclosure with baboons. When the park closed a few years ago, I think this group went to the Continent.

During the 70's and 80's we bred at Glasgow nearly sixty Barbary sheep whilst trying to maintain the group at between eight and twenty. We disposed of numerous small, start up groups, to zoos, abroad through Ravensden, including several to the Middle East.

Despite their relatively long history in captivity there are few signs, if any, of any deleterious effects appearing. A few people have attempted to argue that the rapid hoof growth might be such an effect, and whilst this might be possible, I disagree, for reasons I will attempt to explain later. For the past 15 years, our group has produced the occasional individual - currently we have two - with white areas just above the rear hooves.

This result is just as one would expect for one hundred years or more of captive breeding of a fast breeding ungulate. As with Pere David's deer, the first genetic bottlenecks occur when the original small group of animals was imported or confined. Four or five generations later one would expect, if there were to be any, the births of weakened or deformed animals as the non-visible genetic characters were combined, recombined and showed themselves before being discarded or immediately dying. The remaining population, almost certainly, 98% homozygous, i.e. identical, with little residual variation. This is not a problem unless you decide to introduce " fresh blood " i.e. a totally unrelated animal, from either a wild caught or North African population. If you do this you go straight back to square one. As was pointed out to me by Michael Brambell many years ago, the time to "re-combine" these self-sustaining but inbred captive populations, is at the release stage, but not before, unless for very specific and clearly understood purposes. The maximum variation is then available to the animals as they try to adapt and adjust to life once more in the wild.

Despite what I have just said, the chance to acquire a "fresh" animal from another UK flock/herd should always be taken. As most stockbreeder/breeders of ornamental birds, be they budgies or poultry understand, this can result in a general improvement in fertility and physical vitality, even if the blood lines being used appear to be genetically closely related or line bred. It was for this reason that, in the late 1970's, we acquired a Paignton bred, male Barbary sheep through Ravensden. Similarly we agreed to Nick Ellerton's request to retain a young Glasgow-bred Pere David's stag when it arrived at Chester on route to Da Feng for the re-introduction project instead of letting it proceed with the others. The Paignton-bred male Barbary sheep was, in my subjective opinion, not very "good". He was smaller and his horns were flatter than our own (a characteristic which lingered for two or three generations in his offspring). We are now back to our original type which possess more upright, curled-back horns.

To facilitate the integration of this male into our group and to ensure he had little or no competition we removed all of our adult males, and have continued with just one adult male, two or three sub-adult males with four to eight females ever since - until recently.

We had always encountered problems with over growth of hooves especially as, like Edinburgh Zoo before us, we kept our animals on a sloping tree-covered, earthy hillside. About 15 years ago we built a substantial concrete hard standing followed by some small sandstone climbing hills.

Just before I was appointed Director at Glasgow in 1972, our own magazine "Zoo Life" featured a sequence of photographs of the late Reg Lowe, the Kirkcaldy-based vet, using a dart-gun to immobilise our Barbaries for foot trimming and I soon became familiar with this traumatic and expensive routine. It became more traumatic than absolutely necessary because the more experienced females became adept at spotting not just Reg's Landrover, but the rifle or Reg himself, and would start running immediately. On one poignant occasion, when I was standing down at the far end of the enclosure just outside the fence trying to ensure that no passers by were impaled on a stray dart the entire herd came and stood next to me - someone they had grown to trust during long summer evenings when apart from me and the security guard there would be few people about.

Such a tortuous business plagued both Edinburgh and ourselves resulting in Edinburgh eventually, I believe, deciding to go out of this species. Investigation of the situation at Regent's Park and Paignton showed both collections routinely catching these animals by hand for pedicures, a system I personally favour. However, it is dependent upon your quality of stockmanship and the bureaucratic pressures your collection may have to endure regarding Health and Safety, Risk Assessments and such like.

The experienced keepers who built up a close relationship with their animals can usually grasp their horns "en passant" and upturn the young one. However, distressing accidents can happen, so it is not a operation to be undertaken lightly. Adult Barbary sheep, whilst they are usually kept behind six foot fences, can clear them with relative ease when excited, and once out are very difficult to re-capture. We have seen them jumping onto roofs of adjacent buildings, before jumping back into the enclosure and jumping for fun over six foot internal fences by bouncing off the chain link where it pressed a sloping tree. They are, fortunately, nowhere near as nimble as the Markhor ram which one heart-stopping morning, Michael Brambell saw walk out along the 35 degree, two by two, angle irons holding the engirding fence at the rear and very top of the Mappins, where it projected out over Regent's Park and the service area. When he reached the end of the angle iron, at that point some twenty metres above ground, he twiddled round before delicately picking his way back into the enclosure again!

We still dart our animals using our local licensed vet, a cumbersome process which every February/March, when females are heavily pregnant and have endured a long wet winter, results in quite a number of untrimmed hooves because the opportunities for darting are restricted especially as the hillside is exposed and windy.

At the Mappins and the larger Barbary sheep exhibits on the continent, I had always assumed that the numerous extra males were there mainly for exhibition purposes. These were the bigger showier animals with large horns and luxuriant flowing manes - an impression fostered by the male-only exhibits shared with primates in other collections. I am now increasingly of the opinion that this is the way that these animals should be kept if they are " to behave properly ".

With just one adult dominant male the situation is quite abnormal. The group is very settled, with no evident stress. Activity levels are low, with it is argued, resultant over-rapid hoof growth. The adult male becomes tamer and tamer with his keepers until he eventually becomes a danger - especially to anyone working in this section alone - a situation with medium-sized ungulates, memorably portrayed by Hediger many years ago. It is possible that the Barbary ram is compensating for the lack of other males to spar and wrestle with in the typical locked-horn Barbary manner. These extra males are a necessary release for pent-up stress (or is it boredom?). Because there are additional males, who are always on the look-out for extra mating opportunities, the herd is kept, if not constantly on the move, well-chivvied, with possibly a beneficial effect on rate of hoof-wear.

Barbary sheep are adapted to live in arid areas. In conditions of plenty in captivity, they will sometimes breed twice a year, and nearly always do so if they loose the first lamb or lambs in March - so there is every incentive for the males to keep checking for signs of oestrus in the females, despite the increasing day length in the spring and in early summer.

The question of their longevity should also perhaps be addressed. Our females routinely live until they are thirteen or fourteen years old. Long before this they find themselves with few if any teeth - which need not be a problem if the vegetables are cut up small. The heavy foot growth is probably an adaptation to the hard, abrasive, sandstone of the Atlas mountains. In the wild they would be unlikely to survive past the age of six or eight. We find the hooves of these very old animals extremely difficult to keep trimmed back properly because of the extension of the main blood vessels through the hoof. Sometimes indeed, we have been forced to consider culling certain individuals for this reason alone. It is perhaps a feature of their management which herd owners have been carrying out routinely through the years, without appreciating or rationalising why they have done so. It is possible that the combination of an excellent diet, excessive longevity and extremely rapid hoof growth results in conditions so abnormal as to inevitably produce animals which after the age of ten or twelve are bound to create a difficult or ethical dilemma if they are to be exhibited in a 100% perfect condition. Over the next year or two I hope to find out from other collections, if possible, what the maximum longevity of individual animals is in their herds. I would also like to visit the naturalised Barbaries in Arizona where herds are reputed to total thousands in number after their initial introduction by wealthy ranchers looking for something to hunt outwith the control of American game laws. I would like to see if the males spend most of the year in bachelor herds as do many other mountainous ungulates, and the amounts and types of activity present.

In the meantime every time my eye rests on our small group of Barbary sheep far from dismissing them as so common as to be unworthy of interest, my imagination is stimulated by their visual appeal and the success of their long term captive breeding in Zoos.

This article first appeared in Zoo! Issue No. 10, Summer 1998, the magazine of the Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society, and is reproduced by courtesy of the Editor. Further information about the Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society can be obtained by sending a SAE to: the Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society, PO Box 4, TODMORDON, Lancs. OL14 6DA.

BARBARY SHEEP, Ammotragus lervia

by Richard O'Grady

The little Barbary sheep lamb, born this year, is the latest birth in our small flock. For me, the births each year of this species are highly symbolic, representing over 150 years of captive breeding in the U.K. with no fresh blood! Looking at this lamb, it is clear it is as fit and well as if it was running with its relatives in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. How is this so?

The ancestors of all the Barbary sheep in the U.K. were imported by the Zoological Society of London for Regent's Park Zoo in 1842. Their descendants were eventually part of the top exhibit on the Hagenbeck-style, artificial mountain of the Mappin Terraces. From here a group was sent to the newly opened Edinburgh Zoo in the 1920s. In 1968, Calderpark Zoo -as it then was - acquired five from Edinburgh. We have been breeding them every year ever since, whilst both Regent's Park and Edinburgh Zoos have dispersed their herds, in London's case, abroad and out of the country.

Careful research has shown no fresh blood. Two animals were imported by London earlier in the twentieth century but these never bred and, in fact, died within a year or eighteen months.

The remaining animals can now be regarded as homozygous and genetically around 98% identical. They are virtually trouble free. The only signs I can see of any domestication is that two of our animals, and another three in the past, have white hind feet. The explanation for this is that all the deleterious factors have previously occurred and been removed, either by being born dead, not surviving, or by culling. When animals are reduced to a very small number before increasing again, genetic variation is invariably lost.

This phenomenon is known as a 'genetic bottleneck' and occurs naturally. It is believed, for example, that African cheetahs have been through several such genetic bottlenecks in the wild during the past 10,000 years, with a consequent reduction in genetic diversity. Current captive cheetah breeding programmes are focussed on maintaining such naturally reduced genetic diversity as much as possible, without losing any more through mismanagement.

Père David's deer is another species which has undergone several genetic bottlenecks. The first obvious one occurred when the population was enclosed in the walled grounds of the Imperial Hunting Palace. For the next one thousand years this population existed in isolation. Then sixteen animals were removed to European zoos in the early years of the twentieth century, which created another bottleneck! All Père David’s deer alive today are descended from these sixteen animals!

Yet it is patently evident that Père David's deer and Barbary sheep, and even cheetahs for that matter, do not suffer from ‘inbreeding depression’. There are no 'bulldogs', no lethal genes, and no obvious behavioural abnormalities.

The principle of ‘adding fresh blood’ is frequently misunderstood by animal breeders. There is an implicit assumption that this is a good thing, to be encouraged. This is not necessarily so. If adding fresh blood means reintroducing to the captive U.K. population deleterious factors, long since previously removed, then this should be resisted. This would happen if, for example, someone imported a Barbary sheep direct from the wild. The time to gather together animals from a number of sources is when a release back into the wild habitat is being contemplated. The resultant variation amongst the off-spring would then provide the maximum material for natural selection to work upon.