The Racka-sheep…

Herdingworld Magazine 2/2013.

Alfred Edmund Brehm: World of Animals
Légrády Brothers 


At the Hungarian conquest times, there were two breeds of sheep’s existing. They were related with each other, but looked differently. One was the more ancient-looking racka-sheep, which has the horns corkscrew-twisted and the shape of a V. This breed of sheep origins from Asia Minor, has excellent quality of flock, gives a lot of good quality milk but is very modest. His unique look is a result of the taste of the ancient Hungarian people. The Racka-sheep has two subspecies bred at the moment. The Transylvanian and the lowland-racka.

The most trusted source regarding the history of the Hungarian sheep-breeds are the theories of Béla Hankó. He wrote, that this sheep with the straight and V shaped horns came with the first Hungarians into the Carpathians around the time the Conquest. They live here since. Sándor Bökönyi is adding to this, that both, the racka and the other corkscrew-twisted Hungarian sheep have the same ancestor. The first mentioning of the racka sheep comes from Mesopotamian and Etruscan sources. This rough-coated, sheep with twisted horns got in 1000 years into Anatolia, Persia and to the Caspi-Lake. The Hungarian ancestors took them from there to the Carpathian Mountains with themselves. This breeds were improved into the today’s racka sheep.

In the early Hungarians life the sheep was the most important game after the horse. The racka-sheep is a typically Hungarian animal-breed. It can survive in meadows, which would not be able to feed any other breed of sheep. This breed is frugal, hard, persistent but hot-tempered. His coat is quite rough, so it is not really suitable for making fine light-weight cloth, but perfect for making felt. But because of this rough coat, to produce felt, you need the needle-planking technology to use on its wool. Its coat is rally fatty, this is what this sheep need to survive in the Hungarian weather, since this sheep lived all year outside.

At the moment there are 3 breeds of sheep which originated from Hungary, and which breeds the Hungarians value as a national treasure. The most ancient breed is the racka. The other two came later into the country, but was refined and bred in Hungary. These two other breeds are the cikta and the cigaja. After the century a new breed was imported, the merino. Since this breed’s felt was finer and they also produced more of it, the 3 Hungarian breed’s number decreased dramatically. It was no longer important to survive all year outside, using any kind of meadow to survive, it became more important to produce and a lot of good quality wool. These 3 breed of sheep became endangered from extinction. Through a conservation program from the state, it was possible to rescue this typically Hungarian breeds from extinction and they survived in small population though.

The whole body-construction of the racka is appealing, but the most empathic body part is the head. Keeping proud, upstanding handlebar horns are unique among the world's breeds of sheep. The muzzle is tapering but not getting sharp at the nose. The profile for ewes close to the line, but never concave, the rams have moderately convex nose line. As for the imperial breeds is usual, the gender differences are in the racka breed as well very visible and high. His eyes

The most wanted horn-form looks viewed from the front is straight, regular V-shaped upright, has an evenly handlebar longitudinal axis, and has at least 4 screws turn over the age of 2 years. The horns bend from the side profile of the extended line of the slope ahead. The ram’s horns are longer, thicker and slightly wider. The horns of the mothers should be greater than the length of the head length, while the ram’s horns should be at least twice as long as the head.

The head is covered with glossy short hair. On the forehead longer hair is permitted, but the facial parts are always clean. The jowl and neck are wrinkle-free, good-looking, and look like a proud-range deer neck. The udder of the mothers is well developed and naked. The tail is long, always extending beyond the hock. The muscles are lean, but flexible. The legs are thin, but have strong bones, lean, and the tendons are steel. The knuckles are solid, their horn is flexible. The sheep gait is fast, bouncing, hopping, skilful and harmonious.

The skin of the racka is fine, but very flexible. His wool is rough (average E-assortment), mixed (20-40 flakes is between 60-80 microns sprayed fibre fineness). The coat has a single curled, almost braided structure, wavy, on certain parts of the body up to 30 cm thick, almost down to the floor, only the neck and torso are covered. If kept in a stable, his coat often felts. The front legs are covered with short, bright hair. The hind legs are often overgrown with wool. The abdomen is usually not covered completely with wool, particularly in older age. The coat colour is white or black. The mothers weight about 35-45 kg, the rams about 55-75 kg. The mother’s shoulder-height is about 66 cm, the shoulder-height of the rams 72 cm on average. Lambs are born once a year since oestrus is seasonally, from mid-July until mid-January and the females are fertilized with high success. The rate of twin-birth is between of 5-40%, depending on the habitat. Racka’s are excellent mothers, their raise their offspring with high success. They produce a lot of milk, almost as much as milk-producing sheep-breeds do. Nowadays is not usual to milk the mothers, but if the lambs are separated early from the mothers, they can produce up to 60l milk. The lambs are strong, very viable, from the day of their birth they are able to go with their mothers up to several kilometres. The perfect organizational strength, good pasture skills, liveliness makes this breed perfect for extensive, outside keeping without a need for a barn. They were kept so for a thousand year.

The black version of the racka has on the muzzle and the legs short and glossy black hair. They also have black wool. The lambs’ fur at birth, has glossy black colour, and the wool is very short and forms curly clumps, they look almost as beautiful as the new-born karakül-lambs. During summer days because of the sun it can occur that the wool-end becomes reddish. At older age, greying occurs, giving shades of grey to the fur. The horns and nails are dark slate grey or black. The wool cluster length is less than in the white colour version of the breed.

The weight ratio of the fibres and flakes is varying depending on the bloodline, sex, and season. Relatively more flakes can be observed in the mother’s wool than rams, more in winter than in summer and more in the ones spent the winter in an open field than in barns.

Landraces: the Hungarian plain racka and the vlach or other called racka of gyimes.

The wool of the black lambs is mainly used for producing caps, lining or collars. The most valued fur for making caps have lambs from parents which have black wool and even a dark tongue, so there are breeders which prefer this colouring for breeding. On the other hand, the traditional Hungarian suba was made from the coat of the light-coloured sheep, and their wool has a much better quality for making rugs, blankets or textile. The white wool was also better for colouring it, so it was also very popular among the Hungarian manufactures. So both colour of sheep was bred, and the white colour became more popular. The females can give 1-3 kg, the ram’s 2-3 kg wool during one clipping. The fur produces not clustered but 20-30 cm long smooth and towards the top composed spiky tufts. The clipped wool –because of its rough-structure- needs to be mixed with the finer wool of the curkana sheep to make blankets or other products.

The mountain or olah curkana racka lives mainly in Transylvania and in the Highlands, but it can be also found on the Plain land.

The ram’s horns are long and multiple times twisted, the mothers have shorter and straighter horns. Also the rams can have shorter or straight horn. The colour of the head and the coat can be white, yellowish, black or rarely dark grey. Interesting is the white colour version, in which the lips, ears, and eyelashes are black. The Highland-Racka is smaller and heavily built than the racka from the Plains, there the mothers body weight is 25-30 kg, sometimes even 40 kg, rams have 30-50 kg. The coat can be 30-40 cm long. In general, the highland Racka’s coat is smoother than the lowland’s: it has more flocks, it felts easier, so it can be used on its own to produce textile, rugs or blankets. The people of Transylvania produces blankets, carpets or even stockings from it. After the 4-8 weeks of nursing time the racka is producing milk for 4-6 months, during which time from a lactating mother you can milk 30-70 litres of milk. The amount of the given milk in the Carpathians is much more than on the Plain land of course, because of the better quality of food. This is the reason why the highland-racka gives more milk than the plain land-racka. There is no difference in the milk solid content between the two breeds. To get 1 kg of cheese you need 5-6 l milk.
The racka is a very hard, resistant, and undemanding animal. It can survive the cold windstorms of the mountains, and does not need a barn not even in the winter. It digs out its food from under the snow, and can use all kind of plants to live on, can feed itself even on the dry and fibrous roots of the salty plain land-ground.

Meaning of the word racka

Olman – Following ancient voices

It is not easy to try to understand the etymology of the name of this ancient sheep-breed among the words starting with an r. Most probably the name is a Hungarian invention, it was used as an animal-breeding and as a dialect word. The first mentioning of the word racka was found in a German text form 1799 (the word was racsco) and can be paired with other similar words from animal breeding (raci, raca, racó). The Hungarian folks-art book (2001) writes the following in its capture about sheep:

"... A racka word appeared rather late in our language, only at the end of the XVIIIth century. It seemed that the ancient sheep breed was only named after the merino-sheep were brought into Hungary. (The Hungarian linguistics says that the word is a Hungarian development)”

This suggests, that the name of the sheep racka was given by the Hungarian people for identifying the sheep which already existed in Hungary and to differentiate it by name from the other, new imported breeds. Most probably the name means some quality which was different from all the other breeds of sheep. From the 2 subspecies of the racka (the highland-racka and the plain land racka) the plain land racka is the older breed, so most probably the origin of the name also comes from the dialect which was used in the Plain land.

The root of the word racka is rac. Since the word ending –ka-ke is commonly used an animal names, most probably the rac is the word which was used around the sheep and means something typical for the breed as well.
So if we list the properties of the breed, the most unique are the horns, which are twisted but straight at the same time. The V shape of the horns exists since the 17-18th century as a result of a genetic mutation. Experts write of its horn and is ancient properties the following:

According to the archaeological findings (Sándor Bökönyi) the racka came with the ancestors into the Carpathian Mountains. The term sheep in Hungarian was meant originally only for the racka. By that time, their horn wasn’t V-shaped and twisted, it was horizontal and swinged. The first findings about the V-shaped horns are from the 16-17th century (János Matolcsi)

So this could bring us to the idea, that we look into the words which meant by that time twisted.

The other typical racka-quality is the black colour which inherits the dominant way, which is different from any other breed, where the white colouring inherits the dominant way. Lambs, which are born black tend to get lighter when aging, they are becoming more and more greyer with the time. They can also become reddish-black because of aging or the sunlight. On the body parts, where no coat (feet, head) is, their fur remains shiningly black and their skin is grey. The lambs which are born white, they stay white or yellowish-brownish, but mainly light-coloured and they have pink skin. This dominant black colour suggests an oriental rooting. The exact origin of the breed is unknown, but probably they are direct descendants of the first wild sheep which were domesticated in Mesopotamia. Also the central-Asian sheep and the moufflons can be ancestors of all Hungarian sheep-breeds.  The Mongolian name of the sheep is arkal or argali, and the tones from these words are related to the tones from the word racka.

Biome of the Racka

The lay observer can also see a lot of similarities between the racka sheep and their herding dog, the puli. First, they movement is similar, a typical bouncing course, the structure of their coat looks very similar and second, in both species the black colouring is inherited the dominant way, but here some explanation why is this like this:
Csaba Arany: History of the Puli

Coexistence of the puli and the racka-sheep

To the life of the ancient Hungarian folk the puli was necessary, and why this was like this, I have to tell a bit more about the sheep, which were one of the most important game of the ancient Hungarians.
The racka-sheep was the most typical domestic animal this folk had. This breed is so typically Hungarian, it cannot be found anywhere else, only where Hungarian people lived. It can survive on meadows, on which no other animal would be able to survive. It was and is able to use meadows, which are already peeled by horses and cows. Its coat is not suitable to make fine textile from it, but it has the best quality to produce felt from it.
And the felt was the most important material in the ancient Hungarian people’s life.

The yurt, in which they lived, had to be portable and re-buildable, and it was covered with the felt, which was made from the racka-sheep wool. The yurt based on a circle, which had 7-10 m diameter and was 4-5 m high. Its frame was covered with the felt, which provided protection against any kind of weather, rain, wind, or cold. Later the shepherds also used fur cloak made out of the wool of the racka.

We also know, that the meat, the milk, the cheese and the curd cheese from the sheep was one of the main nourishment of our ancestors while traveling long distances.
All these qualities made the racka sheep very important in the families and in the rider’s life as well.

Our ancestors also bred these sheep in high numbers, sources describe it like: there were huge sheep-herds all over the plain lands (Ibn Fladhlan Persian historian)
The herding and protecting of this huge herds was the task of the puli. „ On their huge plain lands, there are thousands of sheep, which are guarded and moved by their loud, alert and tiny dogs”- Prophyrogenitos Konstantinos writes this in his book: De administrando imperio. Corpus Scriptorum Bizantinae.

So the importance of the racka sheep made the importance and the role of the puli also an integral part of the life of the early Hungarians.
Beside what historians wrote, the facts of nature explains the similarities between the puli and the racka sheep. They both evolved and lived on the same habitat, had to survive the same weather conditions, so their protection system is similar.

You only need to have a look on the two animals, you can see the outstanding similarities in their coat.
This cannot be by chance, this property evolved at both species because of the external pressure. This two species lineage from completely different ancestors (one is herbivore the other one carnivore), so their similarities came from the environment.

Their coat does not only look similar, their structure is also the same. Both species have two layers of fur. The first layer is the fine wool, the second is a much rougher coat. This structure provides really good isolation against cold but also against heat.
To protect the body from the extremities of the weather this coat.-structure evolved during hundreds of years. The selection was quite rough, the animals which were weaker, died young, so they fell out from the breeding program.

The racka sheep as mentioned above, are able to survive on meadows, where no other herbivore is able to survive. So they were kept on meadows which were not good enough for cows or other game.
The surrounding of the Caspi-see is very desert-like, there are no shadows, summer is hot, and winter is extremely cold. This environment is responsible that both, the puli and the racka sheep became so frugal.
There is one more common attribute between the racka and the puli, this is the fat-content of the fur.

The wool of the racka contains less fat than the other sheep-breeds. This cannot be by chance, specially the fact, that the fat-content of the fur of the puli and the racka is completely the same. This similarity is unique among between 2 non-related species.

We know the climate of their habitat, where they had to tolerate long dry periods followed by short but really wet and rainy weather. To be able to protect themselves from the moisture the fur needs to have a high fat-content so the water peels of the coat. However the fat-content of the puli’s and the racka’s fur is low, although there is moisture where they live. So the question is, what could explain, that they haven’t built up a more effective protection against rain? The answer is in the climate of their habitat, where the weather can be really cold and really hot as well. High fat-content blocks the ability to perspiration through the skin, and it gives a burning feeling if the temperature is high. So high-fat content in the fur makes life not easy during summer. But to protect themselves against rain, both, the puli and the racka have a different defending method. This is how the coat of both of them forms and grows on their body, so it leads the water away, and the skin remains dry in the rain.

This mop-formed hair allows also a unique way of losing heat in warm weather for the puli. Dogs cannot sweat, they do not have the glands for it under the skin. So pulis do not have them either. They pant, so they vaporise heat through their tongue. But this fur-structure makes it possible for them to evaporate some heat through the skin. Not sweat, they are not able to do that, but to evaporate. So their mop-formed fur helps them to survive heat and rain as well.
The fact, that two, from each other so different species have the same fur-structure underlines the theory that this had to evolve to adapt to the same environment in order to survive.  The best way to achieve this goal was to have the same kind of fur, which can protect both, the dog and the sheep. Their coevolution and coexistence is remarkable.

József Tari

English version: Beatrix Belényi