The Karakul is possibly the oldest breed of domesticated sheep. Archeological evidence indicates the existence of the Persian lambskins as early as 1400 B.C., and carvings of a distinct Karakul type have been found in ancient Babylonian temples. Although known as the "fur sheep", the Karakul provided more than beautifully patterned silky pelts for its owner. These sheep also were a source of milk, meat, tallow, and fiber. The wool of the adult Karakul (a very strong fiber) was felted or spun into fabric for garments, footwear, carpets, and yurts, among other uses.
The Karakul is native to Central Asia and is named after a village called Karakul. Karakul lies in the valley of the Amu Darja River in the former emirate of Bokhara, West Turkestan. This region is now known as Uzbekistan. It is one of high altitude, with scant desert vegetation and a limited water supply. This made for a difficult life, which imparted to the breed a hardiness and an ability to thrive under adverse conditions. This is distinctive of the modern Karakul.
Karakuls were first introduced to the United States between 1908 and 1929. Pelt production was the goal, but very few animals were obtained. It was of course necessary to cross them with other breeds to obtain the quantity of pelts required by the fledgling industry. The first cross produced quality fur pelts, but there was an inadequate number of purebreds to guarantee the success of the industry. Eventually the flocks were dispersed, and many of the original rams were lost. The introduction of other breeds into the bloodlines has resulted in wide variations in body type and fleece characteristics. This lack of uniformity is apparent also in the native flocks. It is interesting, however, that the true Karakul traits that are so unique to the breed continue to persist even though other breeds have been introduced.
This has left us with a type of sheep having a rather wide definition, but it cannot be argued that the characteristics which Karakuls have in common with each other are distinctive and make them quite different from any other sheep breed found in the US today.
Karakuls are medium-sized sheep, but they differ radically in conformation from many other breeds. They are considered a fat-tailed (or broad-tailed) sheep, but theirs is not always an extreme version of such. We see a great variation in the size of the tail among individual sheep. Karakuls, like most sheep, are born with a long tail. The upper half contains a sack which begins to fill up with fat as soon as the animal is born. This section of the tail has fleece on the outside and smooth skin on the underside.
Karakuls, while desert sheep, are adaptable to various climates. The harsh conditions under which they evolved has given them strong and lasting teeth, a key to their longevity. They are resistant to internal parasites as well. Their hooves are sound, being susceptible to foot rot only if restricted to wet marshy ground. While they respond to good feed and care, they are excellent foragers and can graze marginal land or survive a season of scant food which might kill ordinary sheep. They withstand extremes of either hot or cold, but they do seem to appreciate the choice of dry cover.