Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (DAD-IS)

The Barbarine sheep: The “Noble” breed of Tunisia


Originally from Central steppes of Asia, the Barbarine sheep breed was introduced to Tunisia by the Phoenicians around the fourth century B.C. By the year 1050 A.D. it had become the permanent unique and "noble" breed that is represented in the sacrifices scenes and the religious ceremonies of the country. Locally, the breed is known as “Nejdi” or “the Arab sheep breed” while "Barbarine" is just a European appellation that was actually attributed to the indigenous North African Berbers breed. The Barbarine is the Tunisian national population of the transboundary “Arabi” breed.

The typical prominent phenotypic feature by which you can easily recognize the Barbarine breed is its large bilobed bag tail that on average represents 13% of the animal's body weight and accumulates fat and coccygeal vertebra reserves. Interestingly, this feature distinguishes the breed by providing it a remarkable rusticity and the ability to cope with the most arid and difficult breeding conditions in the country. Thus, it is considered as the main native sheep breed of the country and is currently encountered across the whole territory from the north side (humid and sub-humid), through the central region (semi-arid), to the Sahara (arid and desert).

Phenotypically, the Tunisian Barbarine breed is quite diverse in accordance to its regional distribution. As a matter of fact, two main traditional ecotypes, namely the Red-head and the Black-head, have been defined; and within which different variants have been described. For instance, the Northern type, which is mainly encountered in the regions of Nabeul, Siliana, Ben Arous and Jendouba, is either black-headed or red-headed, has a large size with 75 cm height at the withers and an average weight of 75 kg for males and 50 kg for females. In addition; there is the Black Barbarine variant, which is entirely black fleeced and mainly encountered in Jendouba; Béja and Mateur, and is characterized by its ability to resist to the effects of St. John's wort. Another northern variant is the Sardinian type, which is distinguished by their black pigmentation on the muzzle, around the eyes and lower limb extremities. The central part of Tunisia is known for the medium sized Barbarine, which are mainly red-headed with 65 to 70 cm height at the withers of and an average weight of 70 kg for males and 45 kg for females. They are mostly encountered in Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan and Sfax regions. Another purebred variant is known in Sfax, Sidi Bouzid and Siliana, and is the Barbarine sub-type that has a white frontal list on its red head. Another central variant is the Barbarine of the Sahel, which is characterized by its arched tail and is adapted to the coastal regions of Eastern Tunisia (Sousse and Monastir). Finally, the arid regions of the Tunisian south (Gabes and Tataouine) are populated with only two variants; one is red-headed and the other one is the "Sagaa" variant, which has a white head with brown muzzle and circles around the eyes. Both variants are small, with an average 55 cm height at the withers and an average weight of 55 kg for males and 40 kg for females.

Although many farmers were encouraged to substitute Barbarine ewes by females from the thin tail Queue Fine de l’Ouest breed due to market tendencies to have carcasses with less fat, in addition to the fact that mating requires the farmer’s assistance because the fat tail represents an obstacle for natural mating, sheep production in Tunisia is still dominated by the Barbarine breed. This breed is clearly of great national importance and will almost certainly continue to be the main sheep meat provider for commercial channels in Tunisia.  

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Yosra Ressaissi

Photos: Médiha Khamassi Khbou