Newsletter November 1999 No. 192

Newsletter November 1999 No. 192


Members tour Hili sheep farm, home of 10,000 ewes and lambs

by Phil Iddison

A party of fifteen members including three children visited the Sheep Farm on Thursday 28th October. We were shown round by Guy Barrett-Lennard who has been managing the farm for the last two years.

This is the largest sheep farm in the Emirate with 10,000 ewes and rams, mostly of the Awassi breed but with Nejdi, Sudani and Cypriot breeds and some Merino and Dorset cross-bred animals.

It was the main lambing time and there were young of all ages on show. Four lambs had been born that morning to a Cypriot ewe. They were tiny but had a good chance of surviving with the good care evident at the farm and one managed to get to its feet as our camera shutters clicked.

Guy has been building up the stock at the farm. The principle purpose is to provide 10 week old ram lambs for the ruling household. The sheep are shorn once a year in the winter by a visiting sheep shearer from Australia and a market is being sought for the fleeces.

A day-old Cypriot lamb learns to balance on unsteady legs. More than 10,000 sheep populate the farm located on outskirts of Al Ain.

Members of the Al Ain chapter were greeted by Guy Barrett-Lennard, farm manager, who explained the farm operations and led the tour.

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Special December events, guests highlight season, festivities

December will feature two popular events, one relatively new, one traditional for the chapter, as well as a visit to Al Ain by the Oman Historical Association.

Iftar Dinner

On Tuesday, December 14, the second Iftar dinner will be held. This year, the Zayed Centre for History and Heritage has generously agreed to host the event. (The Zayed Centre is located on the airport road.)

Please contact a committee member to confirm you will be attending. Members are asked to contribute a donation of Dh20 which will be given to the Centre in the tradition of Zakat.

The program will begin at 4:30 pm and will include a tour of the Centre, presentations by professors from the University of the UAE, and, after sunset, a traditional Ramadan meal.

On Christmas Eve, we will hold the annual carols in the desert. Details have not beenfinalized. Please look for an email announcement and/or contact a committee member.

We have normally held the event in the mountains, leaving around sunset. Individuals are encouraged to bring a barbecue and be prepared to spend a few hours with friends.

Also in December, thanks to Debbie Handley, we will be hosting a visit by members of the Oman Historical Association. (Dec 16-17)

If you are able to provide accommodations for any of our guests, please contact Debbie (details on last page).

Details of some of the events include:

  • a tour of the Al Ain Museum followed by a tour of the Al Ain Oasis
  • a tour of a local archaeological site with Dr. Walid, curator of the Al Ain Museum
  • lunch in Hili Gardens
  • tour of Bida Bint Saud tombs, forts
  • Jebel Hafeet for the sunset and 'owl' watching.
  • lunch at Ayn al Faidah
  • AlAin date factory
  • Sharjah Desert Park

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Facial markings, spines of UAE and Middle East hedgehogs

Hemiechinus auritus
Long-eared Hedgehog

Paraechinus aethiopicus
Ethiopian Hedgehog

Paraechinus hypomelas
Brandtís Hedgehog

Note the lack of a coronal pathway (parting of spines on forehead) for the Long-eared Hedgehog as well as the white facial band for Ethiopian Hedgehog.


Ethiopian hedgehogs are found throughout the sandy and gravel desert regions of the UAE and generally have a paler appearance than Brandt's due to white tip spines. Brandt's hedgehogs are found throughout the rocky, more mountainous regions of the UAE with a darker appearance (black tip spines). There is, however, some overlap in distribution especially in the Al Ain region. Long-eared hedgehogs occur from Bahrain westwards and could possible be found in the western regions of the UAE (still to be confirmed).


Size is very similar for all three species with weights between 300g and 600g being common. Brandt's Hedgehogs do, however, carry themselves higher due to longer legs, an adaptation for locomotion in mountainous terrain.

(Sightings confirmed with Peter Cunningham at tel. 675587 and/or email

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A detailed history of dairy food in the United Arab Emirates

by Philip Iddison


There is an abundant selection of dairy products both in the traditional suq and the modern supermarket in the United Arab Emirates. The products are both locally produced and imported. The substantial immigrant population, chiefly from other Arab countries and the Indian subcontinent, has an important role in ensuring this diversity but it is notable that the Emirati nationals have a long standing tradition of dairy product consumption. They have absorbed the new choices made available by the recent wealth in what is now a cosmopolitan and modern country.

Milk and milk products have been a major component of diet in the UAE since the domestication of stock in prehistoric times. Goat and sheep bones are recorded from archaeological sites dating before 4,000 BC. Whilst these may have been the remains of wild animals, contemporary accounts of bedouin tribesmen taking wild ibex into captivity indicate the ease with which wild stock could be domesticated and the probable antiquity of dairy practices in the region. Dairy products were the second most important source of protein in the diet after fish.

Past and present dairy resources and products in the neighbouring countries are also pertinent as the concept of sovereign states is recent in Arabia and historically populations were relatively mobile. Sea trade was well established providing contacts with all the areas around the Gulf, the subcontinent to the east and Africa to the west. It has been suggested that a milk product, possibly a cheese, was being imported in pottery storage vessels from the Harrapan civilisation in the Indus valley at the end of the third millennium BC. Other evidence of milk processing is unlikely to be positively identified due to the simplicity of equipment and its ephemeral nature.

Milk from goats and camels and to a lesser extent sheep and cattle was available to the population before oil revenues spurred recent development. The recent proliferation of dairy farms, dairies and the ready availability of milk products is therefore a natural development. The traditional and modern dairy practices of the country are reviewed in this paper and a glossary of dairy products from the past and present is included.

Prehistory of Dairy in the UAE

In the pre-development era the population derived its food from a number of sources of which herding and associated dairy farming was one of the principal activities. The country has diverse terrain ranging from flat coastal plains through sand desert and gravel plains to mountains. The populationís economic activities reflected this diversity. As a simple model the population can be divided into three main groups with associated dairy food resources. Each dairy resource had particular attributes and restrictions on the production of dairy products.

Haleeb Al Jamal - Camelís Milk - Desert Bedouin

The domestication of the camel is thought to have been achieved in the second millennium BC. Camelís milk was a staple food for the bedouin and enabled small populations to occupy and make economic use of the extensive desert regions. The close association between camel and man gave the bedouin the freedom to travel extensively in the arid conditions of the Arabian interior. Their lifestyle, traditions and survival skills are of great antiquity but survive in very limited forms today.

The camelís physical adaptation and ability to adjust itís metabolism to the sparse vegetation and limited water supplies in the desert is quite extraordinary. One of these adaptations is the ability to dilute its milk when in a dehydrated state. This is thought to ensure an adequate water supply to the suckling calf when there are no alternate supplies.

Practically all human consumption of camelís milk is in the raw state as a fresh drink, haleeb. Commercial dairies in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Mauritania have started to pasteurise and package camel milk but no initiative on these lines has yet been started in the UAE. Historically there was little need to process the milk as most consumption was by owners and herdsmen. With a lactation lasting up to 18 months in a two year reproductive cycle, permanent milk availability from a modestly sized herd was ensured. Camels were milked into a bowl supported on the milkerís knee with the foot resting on the other knee, a finely balanced position. Traditional milking bowls from Oman were made of basket work with an external covering of goat hide. The baskets were made from the fibre of a palm tree, Nannorrhops ritchieana, which are rot proof. Daily milk yields vary from as little as 2 Kg to nearly 14 Kg. for animals under station management in Saudi Arabia with supplemented feed. Average yields are about 5 litres per day.

There are technical difficulties in processing camelís milk into yoghurt, butter and cheese which have only recently been resolved. This inability to process camelís milk was not a serious problem for desert bedouin who had to move regularly with their herd to find pasture. Some societies in other camel rearing regions prepare a soured milk product but this does not seem to have been the case in the UAE.

Camelís milk varies in taste according to the pasture or feed and is generally more salty and acidic to the palate compared to the milk of other ruminants. It can also be the sweetest milk.

Travellers were entitled to satisfy their thirst with camel milk if they came across a milch camel, but presumably only if you were traveling in friendly tribeís territory. Milch camels generally have the udder covered with a cloth bag to prevent the calf suckling at will if the camel is to be milked for human consumption.

Interest in camel rearing is now chiefly concentrated on breeding racing camels as their traditional use as food supply and transport animals is now redundant in the UAE. However this does ensure that camel milk continues to be available for human consumption. In the 1990ís it is still quite common for a UAE family to keep a camel for milk in the family compound.

Haleeb Ghanam, Haleeb Kharouf - Goatís and Sheepís Milk - Plain, Mountain and Oasis

In the north and east of the country the gravel plains with sparse vegetation and adjacent mountain ranges with a perennial water supply ensured a more settled existence and the potential for greater agricultural diversity.

Goats and sheep were ideally suited to the oases and the mountain terrain in the east of the country where daily access to water supplies was possible. Sheep and goats are recorded at fifth millennium sites in Oman. The sheep were probably introduced from the Mesopotamian cultures to the north through well established trade links. Wild relatives of the goat are still present in the area. As noted above the mechanism for their domestication could have been quite simple. Archaeological sites produce many arrow heads implying a hunting subsistence but this does not preclude the use of domestic animals. The wild prey provided meat whilst the domestic animals provided the reliable source of dairy products and other useful secondary products such as hair and dung.

In recent times there appears to have been little differentiation between the milk of sheep and goats. Some milk was consumed raw but this was not the preferred fresh milk; camel or cowís milk was the first choice. Most of this milk was processed into laban, raab, labneh, chami, dihn/zibda, samn and kami/bathith for immediate consumption or storage and commercial purposes. With the mechanisation of water supplies and ready availability of locally grown fodder, sheep and goat herds have increased and spread across the country in recent years. This has put additional pressure on the remaining natural vegetation which is seen as a free resource by the herdsmen, many of whom are now immigrant labour. Production now seems to be concentrated on the meat market which places a premium on Emirati reared meat and in particular sheep production seems to be exclusively for meat. A visit to a local market will however turn up some traditional milk products.

Haleeb Baqar - Cowís Milk - Coastal Entrepot and Oasis

The coastal trading towns of the UAE have a long history which is recorded by archaeological research and sparse texts. The Shimal settlements of the third millennium BC were trading with Mesopotamia and the Indus valley cultures to the north and east respectively. Julfar was an important medieval city which traded with China, Thailand and East Africa.

Members of Bos species are recorded from the fifth millennium, probably introduced from Mesopotamia. However until the recent development era, cows seem to have been a relative rarity. Oxen were used principally as beast of burden; for instance to draw well water and would have had a secondary role as milk providers. An account of a merchant family in Dubai in the 1920ís and 30ís records that cows were kept to provide fresh milk for drinking and also for the preparation of laban, dihn/zibda and samn within the household. The cows were kept in the home compound, foraging on local desert plants supplemented by over-ripe dates and dried sardines. The quality of the milk must have been variable but Easa Al-Gurg attributes his survival to this key resource at a period when the Gulf economies had been devastated by the collapse of the natural pearl market.

The establishment of processing plants and dairy farms which started on a small scale in the 1970ís has developed to satisfy practically every demand even though the population has increased substantially. Initial investment was in reverse processing plants which converted imported dried milk and butter into a range of products, milk, cream, and yoghurt. This is still an important sector of the local dairy industry. The second stage of development brought the introduction of new dairy breeds which could cope with the climatic extremes and produce economic and consistent milk supplies to develop dairy product ranges. This second stage is now reaching maturity with market expansion being largely concentrated on widening product ranges to challenge a diverse import market. Both these aspects are illustrated in the glossary of products which follows.

(to be continued)

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