The Katahdin is a hair sheep breed that was developed at Piel Farm in Maine beginning in the 1950s. The goal was to produce a hardy meat sheep that did not require shearing. Virgin Islands hair sheep contributed the hair coat, as well as hardiness and prolificacy. The Suffolk and other wooled breeds were used to improve size and carcass quality. During the 1970s, the Wiltshire Horn, a hair sheep from England, was also incorporated to a limited degree in order to increase size and improve carcass quality. The resulting breed was named for Maine’s Mt. Katahdin.
Although it was developed in Maine, cold adaptation was not an intentional selection factor for this breed. This brings up a dilemma because the original hair sheep are naturally selected for hot, humid climates. Katahdins do well in that climate, but also tolerate cold climates, as do St. Croix and other hair sheep breeds once they have a chance to acclimate to it.
Katahdin sheep are medium in size, with ewes weighing 120–160 pounds and rams weighing 180–250 pounds. As hair sheep, Katahdins shed without being sheared. The sheep vary somewhat in the type and amount of fiber in their coats, though it is preferred that sheep be completely free of woolly fibers after shedding. The coat can be any color or pattern. Most of the sheep are polled, although horned animals sometimes occur in the breed.
The Katahdin is selected to be an efficient meat producing sheep adapted to a wide variety of environments. While the winter coat provides enough protection for the sheep to thrive in cold climates, their short, hair coat allows them to tolerate the heat and humidity of warmer regions. Katahdins demonstrate greater parasite resistance than commercial wooled breeds, and research is underway to document other performance characteristics.
In 1986, Katahdin Hair Sheep International (KHSI) was formed to register sheep, record performance information, and promote the breed. The Katahdin is increasing in numbers in North America and has also been exported to Central and South America. The breed is taking advantage of the fundamental shift in the American sheep industry caused by the decline of the wool market. This success story is an excellent illustration of the principle that breed resources are conserved so that they can be available when production goals and management systems change. In 2011, the breed association saw more than 6,500 new registrations and Katahdins graduated from The Livestock Conservancy's priority list in 2013.