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Domestic sheep

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(Redirected from Sheep)

The domestic sheep (Ovis aries), the most common species of the sheep genus (Ovis), is a woolly ruminant quadruped which probably descends from the wild mouflon of south-central and south-west Asia. Sheep breeders refer to female sheep as ewes, intact males as rams, castrated males as wethers, yearlings as hoggets, and younger sheep as lambs. In sheep husbandry, a group of sheep is called a flock or mob. See other specialised vocabulary below.


Modern English "sheep" comes from Old English "sceap", ultimately from Common West Germanic "*skæpan", and within the Indo-European languages, unique to West Germanic languages. North and East Germanic languages use word with a different root, and most Indo-European languages use a term related to "ewe" for "sheep".

Cultural significance

Australian Sheep
Australian Sheep

Sheep have had associations with many cultures, especially in the Mediterranean area and Britain, where they form the most common type of livestock in pastoralism. Selective breeding of sheep has frequently occurred and in Egyptian Mythology the ram was the symbol of Heryshaf.

A wide symbology relates to sheep in ancient art, traditions and culture. Judaism uses many sheep references including the Passover lamb. Christianity uses sheep-related images, such as: Christ as the good shepherd, or as the sacrificed Lamb of God (Agnus Dei); the bishop's Pastoral; the lion lying down with the lamb (a reference to all of creation being at peace, without suffering, predation or otherwise). Greek Easter celebrations traditionally feature a meal of Paschal lamb. Sheep also have considerable importance in Arab culture, with Eid ul-Adha being a major festival in Islam when a sheep is sacrificed yearly.

Herding sheep plays an important historico-symbolic part in the Jewish and Christian faiths, since Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and King David all worked as shepherds.

The ram is the first sign of the Western zodiac, in which it is known as Aries. The sheep (or goat) also forms one of the animals associated with the 12-year cycle of in the Chinese zodiac, related to the Chinese calendar. Chinese tradition associates each animal with certain personality traits. See: Sheep (Zodiac).

The raising of sheep for wool and meat became a major industry in colonial Australia and New Zealand and remains significant. As a result, sheep and sheep shearing have become an important part of the folklore and cultural tradition of these two countries. In New Zealand, sheep outnumber the human population 12 to 1.[1]

Sheep are often associated with obedience due to the widespread perception that they lack intelligence and their undoubted herd mentality, hence the pejorative connotation of the adjective 'ovine'. In George Orwell's satirical novel Animal Farm, sheep are used to represent the ignorant and uneducated masses of revolutionary Russia. The sheep are unable to be taught the subtleties of revolutionary ideology and can only be taught repetitive slogans such as "Four legs good, two legs bad" which they bleat in unison at rallies. The rock group Pink Floyd wrote a song using sheep as a symbol for ordinary people, that is, everyone who isn't a pig or dog. People who accept overbearing governments have been pejoratively referred to as "sheeple."


A sheep in a railway track in Mount Barker, South Australia.
A sheep in a railway track in Mount Barker, South Australia.

There are many breeds of sheep, but these are generally sub-classable as wool class, hair class and sheep meat breeds.

Farmers develop wool breeds for superior wool quantity and quality (fineness of fibers), wool staple length and degree of crimp in the fiber. Major wool breeds include Merino, Rambouillet, Romney and Lincoln. Drysdale is a sheep bred specifically for carpet wool.

Breeds of meat sheep include Suffolk, Hampshire, Dorset, Columbia, and Texel.

Breeders of dual-purpose wool class sheep concentrate on fast growth, multiple births, ease of lambing and hardiness. An easy-care sheep is the Coopworth that has long wool and good lamb meat production qualities. Another dual-use breed is the Corriedale. Sometimes sheep are used for both purposes equally and cross-breeding is practiced to maximise both outputs. For example, Merino ewes providing wool may be crossed with Suffolk rams to produce lambs which are robust and suitable for the meat market.

The Finnish Landrace sheep has a reputation for multiple births.

Hair class sheep are the original class of sheep in the world, developed for meat and leather. They are prolific and highly resistant to disease and parasites. Dorpers and Kahtahdins are composite breeds of wool and hair crosses with different degrees of wool/hair mixes within the hair class. True hair sheep such as St. Croix, Barbados Blackbelly, Mouflon, Santa Inez and Royal White shed their protective down fiber to an all hair coat in the Spring/Summer. Hair class sheep are becoming more popular for their no-shear aspects.

Economic importance

Raising sheep occupied many farmers in ancient economies, given that this animal can give milk (and all its derivative products, such as cheese), wool, sheepskin (used for making footwear, rugs and other coverings) and meat. In the 21st century, sheep retain considerable importance in the economies of several countries. After China, the largest producers of sheep are in the southern hemisphere: Australia, New Zealand and the Patagonian regions of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. Other countries may produce a very small proportion of the world market, but sheep nonetheless play an important role in their economy. In some places, like Sardinia, sheep-breeding has become the principal and characteristic activity.

In the UK, the importance of the wool trade was so significant that in the upper chamber of parliament (the House of Lords), the Lord Chancellor sits on a bench known as the Woolsack. This is, as its name suggests, a sack of wool and confers the importance of the wool trade to the English economy at the time of its installation many centuries ago.

The economic importance of sheep in much of the United States has declined as it has become, in some cases, economically unviable to ranch sheep for wool.[2] Texas has by far the most sheep of any state,[3] but now has only about one-tenth[4] of the almost 11 million sheep it had in the 1940s.[5]

Even in the 21st century, in some situations, sheep can provide a return on investment of up to 400% of their cost annually (including reproduction gains). Sheep breeding has played a role in several historic conflicts, such as the Scottish Highland Clearances, the American range wars, and the English "enclosing of the commons".


Grazing sheep
Grazing sheep

Domestic sheep are descended from the mouflon that is found from the mountains of Turkey to southern Iran. Evidence for domestication dates to 9000 BCE in Iraq.[6] It has been found by DNA analysis to be one of two ancestors of domestic sheep. Although the second ancestor has not been identified, both the urial and argali have been ruled out.[7] The urial (O. vignei) is found from northeastern Iran to northwestern India. It has a higher number of chromosomes (58) than domestic sheep (54) which makes it an unlikely ancestor of the latter, but it interbreeds with the mouflon. The argali sheep (O. ammon) of inner Asia (Tibet, Himalayas, Altay Mountains, Tien-Shan and Pamir) has 56 chromosomes and the Siberian snow sheep (Ovis nivicola) has 52 chromosomes.

Lambs are born with long tails which are cut off once they reach a certain age.
Lambs are born with long tails which are cut off once they reach a certain age.

Evidence of early domesticated sheep have been found in PPNB Jericho and Zawi Chemi Shanidar. The fleece-bearing sheep are only found since the Bronze Age. Primitive breeds, like the Scottish Soay sheep have to be plucked (a process called rooing), instead of sheared, as the kemps are still longer than the soft fleece, or the fleece must be collected from the field after it falls out. The European mouflon (O. musimon) found on Corsica and Sardinia as well as the Cretan and the extinct Cypriot wild sheep are possibly descended from early domestic sheep that turned feral.


See also: lamb (food)

Chefs and diners commonly know sheep meat prepared for food as lamb or mutton (compare the French word for "sheep": mouton).

Ewes' milk is used in the production of cheese and yogurt in many upland parts of the world. Well known sheepmilk cheeses include the Roquefort of France, the brocciu of Corsica, the pecorino of Italy and the feta cheese of Greece. Sheepmilk contains no lactose, and thus does not trigger lactose intolerance in humans. [2]

Sheep testicles, sometimes euphemistically called prairie oysters, are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world.


Two sheep in Santiago, Chile
Two sheep in Santiago, Chile
Sheep graze on green pasture lands at the edge of Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Sheep graze on green pasture lands at the edge of Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Sheep mating, called tupping.
Sheep mating, called tupping.
A flock of sheep in Serbia
A flock of sheep in Serbia

Some breeds of sheep exhibit a strong flocking behaviour. This was used as an example to Israelites in the Christian Bible to instruct them to obey their shepherd, or master. Flocking behaviour is advantageous to non-predatory animals; the strongest animals fight their way to the center of the flock which offers them great protection from predators. It can be disadvantageous when food sources are limited and sheep are almost as prone to overgrazing a pasture as goats. In Iceland, where sheep have no natural predators, and grasses grow slowly, none of the various breeds of sheep exhibit a strong flocking behaviour.

Sheep flocking behaviour is so prevalent in some English breeds that special names apply to the different roles sheep play in a flock. One calls a sheep that roams furthest away from the others an outlier, a term originally used to refer to someone who lives far from where they work. This sheep ventures further away from the safety of the flock to graze, due to a larger flight zone or a weakness that prevents it from obtaining enough forage when with the flock. Another sheep, the bellwether, leads the others. Traditionally this was a castrated ram (or wether) with a bell hung off a string around its neck. The tendency to act as an outlier, bellwether or to fight for the middle of the flock stays with sheep throughout their adulthood; that is unless they have a scary experience which causes them to increase their flight zone.

According to a spokesperson of the British National Sheep Association, "Sheep are quite intelligent creatures and have more brainpower than people are willing to give them credit for."[8] For example, sheep in Yorkshire, England found a way to get over cattle grids by rolling on their backs. A study published in National Geographic (December 8) showed a sheep can remember the faces of fifty other sheep for over two years.

Sheep can become hefted to one particular pasture so they do not roam far from home. Since the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom, transplanted sheep have had to be trained to stay in their grazing area.[9]


This is a glossary of terms that relate to sheep and domestic sheep. Note that some terms have localised meanings, and may be used only in one geographical region, or may mean slightly different things in different areas.

  • Chevon — goat meat. A term used mainly in Eastern countries.
  • Cryptorchid — a male sheep that has its testes pushed into its kidney cavity to have infertility but with increased production of lean meat due to testosterone.
  • Ewe — a female sheep, capable of producing lambs.
  • Hoggett (or Hoggatt) — a sheep which by virtue of its age and development is no longer a lamb, but not yet mutton. esp. in relation to meat breeds.
  • Lamb — a young sheep, generally unweaned. In many Eastern countries, there is a less strict definition of lamb which may include older hoggetts. Also used to refer specifically to the meat of such a sheep.
  • Mutton — an older female sheep to be used for meat. Also used to refer specifically to the meat of such a sheep. May refer to goat meat in eastern countries. Derived from the French word Mouton (sheep).
  • Ram (also called a tup) — a male sheep.
  • Old-season lamb — a lamb a year old or more.
  • Ovine — member of the genus Ovis.
  • Slink — a very young lamb.
  • Sucker — an unweaned lamb.
  • Teg — a sheep in its second year.
  • Wether — a castrated male sheep.

See also

  • Blue tongue disease
  • Dolly the sheep
  • Fat-tailed sheep
  • Icelandic sheep
  • Guard Llama, used as livestock guardians
  • Lamb (food)
  • List of sheep breeds
  • Ovis (sheep genus)
  • Scrapie
  • Sheep husbandry
  • Sheep shearing
  • Sheepskin
  • Shepherd
  • Wool


  1. ^ The people of New Zealand. 'Society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (09 June, 2006).
  2. ^ Shear Artisans. San Angelo Standard-Times (22 May, 2004).
  3. ^ Top Five Sheep & Lamb Producing States. National Agricultural Statistics Service (28 January, 2005).
  4. ^ Sheep and Goats. National Agricultural Statistics Service (27 January, 2006).
  5. ^ Sheep Herding. Handbook of Texas Online (26 February, 2004).
  6. ^ Krebs, Robert E. & Krebs, Carolyn A (2003). Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions & Discoveries of the Ancient World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-31342-3.
  7. ^ Hiendleder S, Kaupe B, Wassmuth R, Janke A. (May 7 2002). Molecular analysis of wild and domestic sheep questions current nomenclature and provides evidence for domestication from two different subspecies.. Proceedings. Biological sciences, The Royal Society of London.. Retrieved on August 2, 2006.
  8. ^ Crafty sheep conquer cattle grids. BBC News (30 July, 2004). Retrieved on 2006-04-29.
  9. ^ Sheep taught to stay put. BBC News (3 November, 2001). Retrieved on 2006-04-29.

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
Ovis aries
  • Breeds of Livestock - Sheep: (Ovis aries). Oklahoma State University. Retrieved on 2006-08-02.
  • Sheep at the Open Directory Project
  • Genetic origins of domestic sheep
  • Dutch Texel Sheep
  • SHEEP 101 .info
  • A Glossary of sheep terms (National Sheep Association)
  • The Domestic Sheep by Henry Stewart (1898), "Natural History" and "Anatomy."

Further reading

  • Juliet Clutton-Brock. A natural history of domesticated animals (London 1987).
  • Journal of Heredity. 1998 Mar-Apr;89(2):113-20. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA indicates that domestic sheep are derived from two different ancestral maternal sources: no evidence for contributions from urial and argali sheep. Hiendleder S, Mainz K, Plante Y, Lewalski H.

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