Sheep husbandry is practised throughout the majority of the inhabited world, and has been fundamental to many civilizations. In the modern era, Australia, New Zealand, the southern and central South American nations, and the British Isles
are most closely associated with sheep production.
There is a large lexicon of unique terms for sheep husbandry which vary considerably by region and dialect. Use of the word sheep began in Middle English as a derivation of the Old English word scēap; it is both the singular and plural name for the animal. A group of sheep is called a flock. Many other specific terms for the various life stages of sheep exist, generally related to lambing, shearing, and age.
Being a key animal in the history of farming, sheep have a deeply entrenched place in human culture, and are represented in much modern language and
History of the domestic sheep
The exact line of descent from wild ancestors to domestic sheep is unclear.
statuary found at sites in Iran suggests that selection for woolly sheep may have begun around 6000 BC, and the earliest woven wool garments have been dated to two to three thousand years later.
Sheep husbandry spread quickly in Europe. Excavations show that in about 6000 BC, during the
Ancient Romans kept sheep on a wide scale, and were an important agent in the spread of sheep raising. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (Naturalis Historia), speaks at length about sheep and wool. European colonists spread the practice to the New World from 1493 onwards.
Domestic sheep are relatively small ruminants, usually with a
Another trait unique to domestic sheep as compared to wild ovines is their wide variation in color. Wild sheep are largely variations of brown hues, and variation within species is extremely limited. Colors of domestic sheep range from pure white to dark chocolate brown, and even spotted or
handspinning. The nature of the fleece varies widely among the breeds, from dense and highly crimped, to long and hairlike. There is variation of wool type and quality even among members of the same flock, so wool classing
is a step in the commercial processing of the fibre.
Suffolks are a medium wool, black-faced breed of meat sheep that make up 60% of the sheep population in the U.S.
Depending on breed, sheep show a range of heights and weights. Their rate of growth and mature weight is a
In the first few years of life one can calculate the age of sheep from their front teeth, as a pair of
Sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, with excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of about 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads. Many breeds have only short hair on the face, and some have facial wool (if any) confined to the poll and or the area of the mandibular angle; the wide angles of peripheral vision apply to these breeds. A few breeds tend to have considerable wool on the face; for some individuals of these breeds, peripheral vision may be greatly reduced by "wool blindness", unless recently shorn about the face. Sheep have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk. In general, sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas, and prefer to move uphill when disturbed. Sheep also have an excellent sense of smell, and, like all species of their genus, have scent glands just in front of the eyes, and interdigitally on the feet. The purpose of these glands is uncertain, but those on the face may be used in breeding behaviors. The foot glands might also be related to reproduction, but alternative functions, such as secretion of a waste product or a scent marker to help lost sheep find their flock, have also been proposed.
Comparison with goats
sheep-goat hybrid, known as geep. Visual differences between sheep and goats include the beard of goats and divided upper lip of sheep. Sheep tails also hang down, even when short or docked, while the short tails of goats are held upwards. Also, sheep breeds are often naturally polled (either in both sexes or just in the female), while naturally polled goats are rare (though many are polled artificially). Males of the two species differ in that buck goats acquire a unique and strong odor during the rut, whereas rams do not.
The domestic sheep is a multi-purpose animal, and the more than 200 breeds now in existence were created to serve these diverse purposes. Some sources give a count of a thousand or more breeds, but these numbers cannot be verified, according to some sources. However, several hundred breeds of sheep have been identified by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), with the estimated number varying somewhat from time to time: e.g. 863 breeds as of 1993, 1314 breeds as of 1995 and 1229 breeds as of 2006. (These numbers exclude extinct breeds, which are also tallied by the FAO.) For the purpose of such tallies, the FAO definition of a breed is "either a subspecific group of domestic livestock with definable and identifiable external characteristics that enable it to be separated by visual appraisal from other similarly defined groups within the same species or a group for which geographical and/or cultural separation from phenotypically similar groups has led to acceptance of its separate identity." Almost all sheep are classified as being best suited to furnishing a certain product: wool, meat, milk, hides, or a combination in a dual-purpose breed. Other features used when classifying sheep include face color (generally white or black), tail length, presence or lack of horns, and the topography for which the breed has been developed. This last point is especially stressed in the UK, where breeds are described as either upland (hill or mountain) or lowland breeds. A sheep may also be of a fat-tailed type, which is a dual-purpose sheep common in Africa and Asia with larger deposits of fat within and around its tail.
Barbados Blackbelly is a hair sheep breed of Caribbean
Breeds are often categorized by the type of their wool. Fine wool breeds are those that have wool of great crimp and density, which are preferred for textiles. Most of these were derived from
Coarse or carpet wool sheep are those with a medium to long length wool of characteristic coarseness. Breeds traditionally used for carpet wool show great variability, but the chief requirement is a wool that will not break down under heavy use (as would that of the finer breeds). As the demand for carpet-quality wool declines, some breeders of this type of sheep are attempting to use a few of these traditional breeds for alternative purposes. Others have always been primarily meat-class sheep.
hair sheep in Mudgegonga, Victoria, Australia. This is a new breed of hair sheep suited for the hot and varied Australian climate
A minor class of sheep are the dairy breeds. Dual-purpose breeds that may primarily be meat or wool sheep are often used secondarily as milking animals, but there are a few breeds that are predominantly used for milking. These sheep produce a higher quantity of milk and have slightly longer lactation curves. In the quality of their milk, the fat and protein content percentages of dairy sheep vary from non-dairy breeds, but lactose content does not.
A last group of sheep breeds is that of fur or hair sheep, which do not grow wool at all. Hair sheep are similar to the early domesticated sheep kept before woolly breeds were developed, and are raised for meat and pelts. Some modern breeds of hair sheep, such as the
Dorper, result from crosses between wool and hair breeds. For meat and hide producers, hair sheep are cheaper to keep, as they do not need shearing. Hair sheep are also more resistant to parasites and hot weather.
With the modern rise of corporate agribusiness and the decline of localized family farms, many breeds of sheep are in danger of extinction. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust of the UK lists 22 native breeds as having only 3,000 registered animals (each), and The Livestock Conservancy lists 14 as either "critical" or "threatened". Preferences for breeds with uniform characteristics and fast growth have pushed heritage (or heirloom) breeds to the margins of the sheep industry. Those that remain are maintained through the efforts of conservation organizations, breed registries, and individual farmers dedicated to their preservation.
roughage, avoiding the taller woody parts of plants that goats readily consume. Both sheep and goats use their lips and tongues to select parts of the plant that are easier to digest or higher in nutrition. Sheep, however, graze well in monoculture pastures where most goats fare poorly.
Ruminant system of a sheep
Like all ruminants, sheep have a complex
intestines. The abomasum is the only one of the four chambers analogous to the human stomach, and is sometimes called the "true stomach".
Other than forage, the other staple feed for sheep is
grasses, legumes and forbs. Types of land where sheep are raised vary widely, from pastures that are seeded and improved intentionally to rough, native lands. Common plants toxic to sheep are present in most of the world, and include (but are not limited to) cherry, some oaks and acorns, tomato, yew, rhubarb, potato, and rhododendron.
hefted to one particular local pasture (heft) so they do not roam freely in unfenced landscapes. Lambs learn the heft from ewes and if whole flocks are culled it must be retaught to the replacement animals.
Flock behaviour in sheep is generally only exhibited in groups of four or more sheep; fewer sheep may not react as expected when alone or with few other sheep. Being a prey species, the primary defense mechanism of sheep is to flee from danger when their flight zone is entered. Cornered sheep may charge and butt, or threaten by hoof stamping and adopting an aggressive posture. This is particularly true for ewes with newborn lambs.
In regions where sheep have no natural predators, none of the native breeds of sheep exhibit a strong flocking behavior.
Escaped sheep being led back to pasture with the enticement of food. This method of moving sheep works best with smaller flocks.
Farmers exploit flocking behavior to keep sheep together on unfenced pastures such as hill farming, and to move them more easily. For this purpose shepherds may use herding dogs in this effort, with a highly bred herding ability. Sheep are food-oriented, and association of humans with regular feeding often results in sheep soliciting people for food. Those who are moving sheep may exploit this behavior by leading sheep with buckets of feed.
Sheep establish a
dominance hierarchy through fighting, threats and competitiveness. Dominant animals are inclined to be more aggressive with other sheep, and usually feed first at troughs. Primarily among rams, horn size is a factor in the flock hierarchy. Rams with different size horns may be less inclined to fight to establish the dominance order, while rams with similarly sized horns are more so.Merinos have an almost linear hierarchy whereas there is a less rigid structure in Border Leicesters when a competitive feeding situation arises.
In sheep, position in a moving flock is highly correlated with social dominance, but there is no definitive study to show consistent voluntary leadership by an individual sheep.
Intelligence and learning ability
Sheep are frequently thought of as
University of Illinois monograph on sheep reported their intelligence to be just below that of pigs and on par with that of cattle.
Sheep can recognize individual human and ovine faces and remember them for years; they can remember 50 other different sheep faces for over two years; they can recognize and are attracted to individual sheep and humans by their faces, as they possess similar specialized neural systems in the
right brain hemisphere. In addition to long-term facial recognition of individuals, sheep can also differentiate emotional states through facial characteristics. If worked with patiently, sheep may learn their names, and many sheep are trained to be led by halter for showing and other purposes. Sheep have also responded well to clicker training. Sheep have been used as pack animals; Tibetan nomads distribute baggage equally throughout a flock as it is herded between living sites.
It has been reported that some sheep have apparently shown problem-solving abilities; a flock in West Yorkshire, England allegedly found a way to get over cattle grids by rolling on their backs, although documentation of this has relied on anecdotal accounts.
Sounds made by domestic sheep include bleats, grunts, rumbles and snorts. Bleating ("baaing") is used mostly for contact communication, especially between dam and lambs, but also at times between other flock members. The bleats of individual sheep are distinctive, enabling the ewe and her lambs to recognize each other's vocalizations. Vocal communication between lambs and their dam declines to a very low level within several weeks after parturition. A variety of bleats may be heard, depending on sheep age and circumstances. Apart from contact communication, bleating may signal distress, frustration or impatience; however, sheep are usually silent when in pain. Isolation commonly prompts bleating by sheep. Pregnant ewes may grunt when in labor. Rumbling sounds are made by the ram during courting; somewhat similar rumbling sounds may be made by the ewe, especially when with her neonate lambs. A snort (explosive exhalation through the nostrils) may signal aggression or a warning, and is often elicited from startled sheep.
Welsh Mountain sheep
In sheep breeds lacking facial wool, the visual field is wide. In 10 sheep (Cambridge, Lleyn and Welsh Mountain breeds, which lack facial wool), the visual field ranged from 298° to 325°, averaging 313.1°, with binocular overlap ranging from 44.5° to 74°, averaging 61.7°.
accommodation, one might expect the image of very near objects to be blurred, but a rather clear near image could be provided by the tapetum and large retinal image of the sheep's eye, and adequate close vision may occur at muzzle length. Good depth perception, inferred from the sheep's sure-footedness, was confirmed in "visual cliff" experiments; behavioral responses indicating depth perception are seen in lambs at one day old. Sheep are thought to have colour vision, and can distinguish between a variety of colours: black, red, brown, green, yellow and white. Sight is a vital part of sheep communication, and when grazing, they maintain visual contact with each other. Each sheep lifts its head upwards to check the position of other sheep in the flock. This constant monitoring is probably what keeps the sheep in a flock as they move along grazing. Sheep become stressed when isolated; this stress is reduced if they are provided with a mirror, indicating that the sight of other sheep reduces stress.
Taste is the most important sense in sheep, establishing forage preferences, with sweet and sour plants being preferred and bitter plants being more commonly rejected. Touch and sight are also important in relation to specific plant characteristics, such as succulence and growth form.
The ram uses his
estrus. The ewe uses her vomeronasal organ for early recognition of her neonate lamb.
estrus cycles about every 17 days, during which they emit a scent and indicate readiness through physical displays towards rams. A minority of rams (8% on average) display a preference for homosexuality and a small number of the females that were accompanied by a male fetus in utero are freemartins (female animals that are behaviorally masculine and lack functioning ovaries).
In feral sheep, rams may fight during the rut to determine which individuals may mate with ewes. Rams, especially unfamiliar ones, will also fight outside the breeding period to establish dominance; rams can kill one another if allowed to mix freely. During the rut, even usually friendly rams may become aggressive towards humans due to increases in their hormone levels.
After mating, sheep have a gestation period of about five months, and normal labor takes one to three hours. Although some breeds regularly throw larger litters of lambs, most produce single or twin lambs. During or soon after labor, ewes and lambs may be confined to small lambing jugs, small pens designed to aid both careful observation of ewes and to cement the bond between them and their lambs.
A lamb's first steps
Ovine obstetrics can be problematic. By selectively breeding ewes that produce multiple offspring with higher birth weights for generations, sheep producers have inadvertently caused some domestic sheep to have difficulty lambing; balancing ease of lambing with high productivity is one of the dilemmas of sheep breeding. In the case of any such problems, those present at lambing may assist the ewe by extracting or repositioning lambs. After the birth, ewes ideally break the amniotic sac (if it is not broken during labor), and begin licking clean the lamb. Most lambs will begin standing within an hour of birth. In normal situations, lambs nurse after standing, receiving vital colostrum milk. Lambs that either fail to nurse or are rejected by the ewe require help to survive, such as bottle-feeding or fostering by another ewe.
Most lambs begin life being born outdoors. After lambs are several weeks old,
castrating) is carried out. Vaccinations are usually carried out at this point as well. Ear tags with numbers are attached, or ear marks are applied, for ease of later identification of sheep. Docking and castration are commonly done after 24 hours (to avoid interference with maternal bonding and consumption of colostrum) and are often done not later than one week after birth, to minimize pain, stress, recovery time and complications. The first course of vaccinations (commonly anti-clostridial) is commonly given at an age of about 10 to 12 weeks; i.e. when the concentration of maternal antibodies passively acquired via colostrum is expected to have fallen low enough to permit development of active immunity. Ewes are often revaccinated annually about 3 weeks before lambing, to provide high antibody concentrations in colostrum during the first several hours after lambing. Ram lambs that will either be slaughtered or separated from ewes before sexual maturity are not usually castrated. Objections to all these procedures have been raised by animal rights groups, but farmers defend them by saying they save money, and inflict only temporary pain.
A veterinarian draws blood to test for resistance to scrapie
preventive measures to ward off problems. The first is to ensure all sheep are healthy when purchased. Many buyers avoid outlets known to be clearing houses for animals culled from healthy flocks as either sick or simply inferior. This can also mean maintaining a closed flock, and quarantining new sheep for a month. Two fundamental preventive programs are maintaining good nutrition and reducing stress in the sheep. Restraint, isolation, loud noises, novel situations, pain, heat, extreme cold, fatigue and other stressors can lead to secretion of cortisol, a stress hormone, in amounts that may indicate welfare problems. Excessive stress can compromise the immune system. "Shipping fever" (pneumonic mannheimiosis, formerly called pasteurellosis) is a disease of particular concern, that can occur as a result of stress, notably during transport and (or) handling. Pain, fear and several other stressors can cause secretion of epinephrine (adrenaline). Considerable epinephrine secretion in the final days before slaughter can adversely affect meat quality (by causing glycogenolysis, removing the substrate for normal post-slaughter acidification of meat) and result in meat becoming more susceptible to colonization by spoilage bacteria. Because of such issues, low-stress handling is essential in sheep management. Avoiding poisoning is also important; common poisons are pesticide sprays, inorganic fertilizer, motor oil, as well as radiator coolant containing ethylene glycol.
, a disease transmittable to humans through skin contact
Common forms of preventive medication for sheep are
sinuses, causing breathing difficulties and discomfort. Common signs are a discharge from the nasal passage, sneezing, and frantic movement such as head shaking. External parasites may be controlled through the use of backliners, sprays or immersive sheep dips.
A wide array of bacterial and viral diseases affect sheep. Diseases of the hoof, such as
Johne's disease is a wasting disease that affects young sheep. Bluetongue disease is an insect-borne illness causing fever and inflammation of the mucous membranes. Ovine rinderpest (or peste des petits ruminants) is a highly contagious and often fatal viral disease affecting sheep and goats. Sheep may also be affected by primary or secondary photosensitization. Tetanus can also afflict sheep through wounds from shearing, docking, castration, or vaccination. The organism also can be introduced into the reproductive tract by unsanitary humans who assist ewes during lambing.
A few sheep conditions are transmissible to humans.
Orf (also known as scabby mouth, contagious ecthyma or soremouth) is a skin disease leaving lesions that is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Cutaneous anthrax is also called woolsorter's disease, as the spores can be transmitted in unwashed wool. More seriously, the organisms that can cause spontaneous enzootic abortion in sheep are easily transmitted to pregnant women. Also of concern are the prion disease scrapie and the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), as both can devastate flocks. The latter poses a slight risk to humans. During the 2001 FMD pandemic in the UK, hundreds of sheep were culled and some rare British breeds were at risk of extinction due to this.
Of the 600,300 sheep lost to the US economy in 2004, 37.3% were lost to predators, while 26.5% were lost to some form of disease. Poisoning accounted for 1.7% of non-productive deaths.
Sheep producers have used a wide variety of measures to combat predation. Pre-modern shepherds used their own presence,
traps, and poisons to kill predators, causing significant decreases in predator populations. In the wake of the environmental and conservation movements, the use of these methods now usually falls under the purview of specially designated government agencies in most developed countries.
The 1970s saw a resurgence in the use of livestock guardian dogs and the development of new methods of predator control by sheep producers, many of them non-lethal. Donkeys and guard llamas have been used since the 1980s in sheep operations, using the same basic principle as livestock guardian dogs. Interspecific pasturing, usually with larger livestock such as cattle or horses, may help to deter predators, even if such species do not actively guard sheep. In addition to animal guardians, contemporary sheep operations may use non-lethal predator deterrents such as motion-activated lights and noisy alarms.
Wool supplied by Australian farmers to dealers (tonnes/quarter) has been in decline since 1990
Domestic sheep provide a wide array of raw materials. Wool was one of the first textiles, although in the late 20th century wool prices began to fall dramatically as the result of the popularity and cheap prices for
farm subsidies. Fleeces are used as material in making alternative products such as wool insulation. In the 21st century, the sale of meat is the most profitable enterprise in the sheep industry, even though far less sheep meat is consumed than chicken, pork or beef.
pulp materials to make paper. Of all sheep byproducts, perhaps the most valuable is lanolin: the waterproof, fatty substance found naturally in sheep's wool and used as a base for innumerable cosmetics and other products.
Some farmers who keep sheep also make a profit from live sheep. Providing lambs for youth programs such as
Despite the falling demand and price for sheep products in many markets, sheep have distinct economic advantages when compared with other livestock. They do not require expensive housing,
vertically integrated by agribusiness. However, small flocks, from 10 to 50 ewes, often are not profitable because they tend to be poorly managed. The primary reason is that mechanization is not feasible, so return per hour of labor is not maximized. Small farm flocks generally are used simply to control weeds on irrigation ditches or maintained as a hobby.
Sheep meat and milk were one of the earliest staple proteins consumed by human civilization after the transition from
Old English word sceap was kept for the live animal. Throughout modern history, "mutton" has been limited to the meat of mature sheep usually at least two years of age; "lamb" is used for that of immature sheep less than a year.
In the 21st century, the nations with the highest consumption of sheep meat are the
Though sheep's milk may be drunk rarely in fresh form,
Pecorino Romano (the Italian word for sheep is pecore) and Ricotta of Italy. Yogurts, especially some forms of strained yogurt, may also be made from sheep milk. Many of these products are now often made with cow's milk, especially when produced outside their country of origin. Sheep milk contains 4.8% lactose, which may affect those who are intolerant.
As with other domestic animals, the meat of uncastrated males is inferior in quality, especially as they grow. A "bucky" lamb is a lamb which was not castrated early enough, or which was castrated improperly (resulting in one testicle being retained). These lambs are worth less at market.
Sheep are generally too large and reproduce too slowly to make ideal research subjects, and thus are not a common
As of 2008, the sheep
transgenic sheep named "Peng Peng" was cloned by Chinese scientists, who spliced his genes with that of a roundworm (C. elegans) in order to increase production of fats healthier for human consumption.
In the study of natural selection, the population of Soay sheep that remain on the island of Hirta have been used to explore the relation of body size and coloration to reproductive success. Soay sheep come in several colors, and researchers investigated why the larger, darker sheep were in decline; this occurrence contradicted the rule of thumb that larger members of a population tend to be more successful reproductively. The feral Soays on Hirta are especially useful subjects because they are isolated.
Sheep are one of the few animals where the molecular basis of the diversity of male sexual preferences has been examined.
Oregon Health and Science University that investigated the mechanisms that produce homosexuality in rams. Organizations such as PETA campaigned against the study, accusing scientists of trying to cure homosexuality in the sheep. OHSU and the involved scientists vehemently denied such accusations.
Domestic sheep are sometimes used in medical research, particularly for researching cardiovascular physiology, in areas such as
behavioral sciences, sheep have been used in isolated cases for the study of facial recognition, as their mental process of recognition is qualitatively similar to humans.
Sheep have had a strong presence in many cultures, especially in areas where they form the most common type of livestock. In the English language, to call someone a sheep or ovine may allude that they are timid and easily led.
sheeple. Somewhat differently, the adjective "sheepish" is also used to describe embarrassment.
Head of ram pictured in the former coat of arms of Sääminki
In British heraldry, sheep appear in the form of rams, sheep proper and lambs. These are distinguished by the ram being depicted with horns and a tail, the sheep with neither and the lamb with its tail only. A further variant of the lamb, termed the
Paschal lamb, is depicted as carrying a Christian cross and with a halo over its head. Rams' heads, portrayed without a neck and facing the viewer, are also found in British armories. The fleece, depicted as an entire sheepskin carried by a ring around its midsection, originally became known through its use in the arms of the Order of the Golden Fleece and was later adopted by towns and individuals with connections to the wool industry. A sheep on a blue field is depicted on the greater/royal arms of the king of Denmark to represent the Faroe Islands
. In 2004 a modernized arms has been adopted by the Faroe Islands, which based on a 15th century coat of arms.
Sheep play an important role in all the Abrahamic faiths;
Passover lamb. Ovine symbols—such as the ceremonial blowing of a shofar
—still find a presence in modern Judaic traditions.
Collectively, followers of
patrons of shepherds, and even of sheep themselves. Christ is also portrayed as the Sacrificial lamb of God (Agnus Dei) and Easter celebrations in Greece and Romania traditionally feature a meal of Paschal lamb. A church leader is often called the pastor, which is derived from the Latin word for shepherd. In many western Christian traditions bishops carry a staff, which also serves as a symbol of the episcopal office, known as a crosier, which is modeled on the shepherd's crook
from the original on 15 March 2022. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
^Meadow, Richard H. (1991). Harappa Excavations 1986–1990 A Multidisciplinary Approach to Third Millennium Urbanism. Madison Wisconsin: PREHISTORY PRESS. pp. 94 Moving east to the Greater Indus Valley, decreases in the size of cattle, goat, and sheep also appear to have taken place starting in the 6th or even 7th Millennium BC (Meadow 1984b, 1992). Details of that phenomenon, which I have argued elsewhere was a local process at least for sheep and cattle (Meadow 1984b, 1992).
^Max Escalon de Fonton, L'Homme avant l'histoire, p. 16–17, in Histoire de la Provence, Editions Privat, Toulouse, 1990. See also F. Bourdier, Préhistoire de France (Paris, 1967) and G. Bailloud, Les civilisations Néolithiques de la France (Paris, 1955).
^Lewis, Gareth (21 January 2008). "Sheep worrying leads to warning from farmers". The Daily Echo. Archived from the original on 19 January 2021. Retrieved 21 January 2008. In total dog attacks cost the industry more than £2m a year Mr Wyeth says thousands of sheep and cattle die as a result of injuries caused by dogs every year. His warning comes at a time when ewes are in lamb and likely to abort if chased by dogs.