By Marca Burns
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 2 (March 1965), p. 11]
Sheep and goats are kept in large numbers in almost all parts of West Africa, but are usually a very minor part of the farming enterprise. In the settled farming areas, and even in the towns, families keep a few sheep and goats which are killed as required for meat, or sold in the market when cash is required for a particular purchase or payment. Under these circumstances there is not much stimulus for improvement, and attempts tend to be confined to Government and University farms, although in Northern Nigeria some of the nomadic Fulani own very large flocks and are beginning to have a more commercial interest.
At present, both sheep and goats are kept primarily for meat, but the skins are an important secondary product, especially in Northern Nigeria. The skin of the Red Sokoto goat makes "Morocco" leather and is worth much more than ordinary goat skin. The Government has been breeding these goat: for some years, with the aim of supplying improved males to the villagers.
However, there mas no knowledge of how to assess the leather potentialities of a skin on a living animal. Therefore I have been carrying out histological studies in order to find out in what ways the most valuable skins differ from the ordinary ones; a possible method for identifying the best skins on living goats is now being tested. This is the first time that scientific methods of assessment have been applied to selection of breading animals for leather production.
The West African sheep do not grow wool, their coat being somewhat like that of a goat. They have, in fact, an undercoat of short fine "wool" fibres but these are shed at frequent intervals and do not form a fleece. A wool-growing project was started by the Northern Nigerian Government in 1959, when Merino rams were crossed with two local sheep breeds. The first-cross progeny grew fleeces composed of very soft wool interspersed with coarse short hairs (kemps); the whole fleece was shed at intervals as in the Wiltshire Horn breed here. The wool was extremely soft, like Shetland wool, and felted readily. The second, cross to the Merino gave a range of fleece types, the best, of which were extremely fine and soft and would make an exquisite fine knitting wool. This is the type of wool now being aimed at. However, improved mutton production is also urgently needed, and for this and technical wool-biological reasons, Wensleydale rams are now being tried, on my advice. We hope that by blending Wensley-dale, Merino, and the local breeds, and selecting those which combine the most desirable traits, we may be able to create a new wool-bearing breed, of superior mutton quality, and with high fertility and milk production.
Unfortunately, pasture improvement remains a major problem for without improved nutrition one cannot get increased production on any substantial scale. The long dry season in Northern Nigeria presents a serious problem which is being tackled so that breed improvement can be accompanied by the better husbandry which is so essential.