Species: Sheep and lambs (Ovis aries)

S P E C I E S  L I S T


Sheep and lambs (Ovis aries)

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Sheep (Ovis aries) are quadrupedal, ruminant mammals typically kept as livestock. Like all ruminants, sheep are members of the order Artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates. Although the name “sheep” applies to many species in the genus Ovis, in everyday usage it almost always refers to Ovis aries. Numbering a little over one billion, domestic sheep are also the most numerous species of sheep. An adult female sheep is referred to as a ewe (/juː/), an intact male as a ram or occasionally a tup, a castrated male as a wether, and a younger sheep as a lamb.

Sheep are most likely descended from the wild mouflon of Europe and Asia. One of the earliest animals to be domesticated for agricultural purposes, sheep are raised for fleece, meat (lamb, hogget or mutton) and milk. A sheep’s wool is the most widely used animal fiber, and is usually harvested by shearing. Ovine meat is called lamb when from younger animals and mutton when from older ones. Sheep continue to be important for wool and meat today, and are also occasionally raised for pelts, as dairy animals, or as model organisms for science.

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.

Sheepraising has a large lexicon of unique terms 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, herd or mob. 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 find representation in much modern language and symbology. As livestock, sheep are most often associated with pastoral, Arcadian imagery. Sheep figure in many mythologies—such as the Golden Fleece—and major religions, especially the Abrahamic traditions. In both ancient and modern religious ritual, sheep are used as sacrificial animals.

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Description and evolution

Domestic sheep are relatively small ruminants, usually with a crimped hair called wool and often with horns forming a lateral spiral. Domestic sheep differ from their wild relatives and ancestors in several respects, having become uniquely neotenic as a result of selective breeding by humans.[1][2] A few primitive breeds of sheep retain some of the characteristics of their wild cousins, such as short tails. Depending on breed, domestic sheep may have no horns at all (i.e. polled), or horns in both sexes, or in males only. Most horned breeds have a single pair, but a few breeds may have several.[3]

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 piebald.[4][5] Selection for easily dyeable white fleeces began early in sheep domestication, and as white wool is a dominant trait it spread quickly. However, colored sheep do appear in many modern breeds, and may even appear as a recessive trait in white flocks.[4][5] While white wool is desirable for large commercial markets, there is a niche market for colored fleeces, mostly for handspinning.[6] 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.

Depending on breed, sheep show a range of heights and weights. Their rate of growth and mature weight is a heritable trait that is often selected for in breeding.[7] Ewes typically weigh between 45 and 100 kilograms (99 and 220 lb), and rams between 45 and 160 kilograms (99 and 353 lb).[8] When all deciduous teeth have erupted, the sheep has 20 teeth.[9] Mature sheep have 32 teeth. As with other ruminants, the front teeth in the lower jaw bite against a hard, toothless pad in the upper jaw. These are used to pick off vegetation, then the rear teeth grind it before it is swallowed. There are eight lower front teeth in ruminants, but there is some disagreement as to whether these are eight incisors, or six incisors and two incisor-shaped canines. This means that the dental formula for sheep is either or [10] There is a large diastema between the incisors and the molars.

For the first few years of life it is possible to calculate the age of sheep from their front teeth, as a pair of milk teeth is replaced by larger adult teeth each year, the full set of eight adult front teeth being complete at about four years of age. The front teeth are then gradually lost as sheep age, making it harder for them to feed and hindering the health and productivity of the animal. For this reason, domestic sheep on normal pasture begin to slowly decline from four years on, and the average life expectancy of a sheep is 10 to 12 years, though some sheep may live as long as 20 years.[3][11][12]

Sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled.[13] Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads.[6][14] 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.[15] 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,[16] 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,[17] but those on the face may be used in breeding behaviors.[7] The foot glands might also be related to reproduction,[7] but alternative reasons, such as secretion of a waste product or a scent marker to help lost sheep find their flock, have also been proposed.

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Warming up…

Sheep compared to goats

Sheep and goats are closely related as both are in the subfamily Caprinae. However, they are separate species, so hybrids rarely occur, and are always infertile. A hybrid of a ewe and a buck (a male goat) is called a sheep-goat hybrid (only a single such animal has been confirmed), and is not to be confused with the sheep-goat chimera, though both are 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. Sheep breeds are also 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.[12]

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A 10 for landing!


The domestic sheep is a multi-purpose animal, and the more than 200 breeds now in existence were created to serve these diverse purposes.[3][18] Some sources give a count of a thousand or more breeds,[19][20] but these numbers cannot be verified, according to some sources.[6][12] However, several hundred breeds of sheep have been identified by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN), with the estimated number varying somewhat from time to time: e.g. 863 breeds as of 1993,[21] 1314 breeds as of 1995[22] and 1229 breeds as of 2006.[23] (These numbers exclude extinct breeds, which are also tallied by the FAO.) For purposes 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.”[23] 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.[16] 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.

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Calmly hovering through the meadow…

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 Merino sheep, and the breed continues to dominate the world sheep industry. Downs breeds have wool between the extremes, and are typically fast-growing meat and ram breeds with dark faces.[24] Some major medium wool breeds, such as the Corriedale, are dual-purpose crosses of long and fine-wooled breeds and were created for high-production commercial flocks. Long wool breeds are the largest of sheep, with long wool and a slow rate of growth. Long wool sheep are most valued for crossbreeding to improve the attributes of other sheep types. For example: the American Columbia breed was developed by crossing Lincoln rams (a long wool breed) with fine-wooled Rambouillet ewes.

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.[25]

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 do produce a higher quantity of milk and have slightly longer lactation curves.[26] In the quality of their milk, fat and protein content percentages of dairy sheep vary from non-dairy breeds but lactose content does not.[27]

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.[25] Hair sheep are also more resistant to parasites and hot weather.[12]

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”.[28][29][30] Preferences for breeds with uniform characteristics and fast growth have pushed heritage (or heirloom) breeds to the margins of the sheep industry.[25] Those that remain are maintained through the efforts of conservation organizations, breed registries, and individual farmers dedicated to their preservation.

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Building a solid base for the Lamb Stack


Sheep are exclusively herbivorous mammals. Most breeds prefer to graze on grass and other short roughage, avoiding the taller woody parts of plants that goats readily consume.[31] Both sheep and goats use their lips and tongues to select parts of the plant that are easier to digest or higher in nutrition.[31] Sheep, however, graze well in monoculture pastures where most goats fare poorly.[31] Like all ruminants, sheep have a complex digestive system composed of four chambers, allowing them to break down cellulose from stems, leaves, and seed hulls into simpler carbohydrates. When sheep graze, vegetation is chewed into a mass called a bolus, which is then passed into the rumen, via the reticulum. The rumen is a 19- to 38-liter (5 to 10 gal) organ in which feed is fermented.[32] The fermenting organisms include bacteria, fungi, and protozoa.[33] (Other important rumen organisms include some archaea, which produce methane from carbon dioxide.[34]) The bolus is periodically regurgitated back to the mouth as cud for additional chewing and salivation.[32] Cud chewing is an adaptation allowing ruminants to graze more quickly in the morning, and then fully chew and digest feed later in the day.[35] This is safer than grazing, which requires lowering the head thus leaving the animal vulnerable to predators, while cud chewing does not.[12]

Other than forage, the other staple feed for sheep is hay, often during the winter months. The ability to thrive solely on pasture (even without hay) varies with breed, but all sheep can survive on this diet.[25] Also included in some sheep’s diets are minerals, either in a trace mix or in licks.

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A Perfect Leaplamb


Flock behavior

Sheep are flock animals and strongly gregarious; much sheep behavior can be understood on the basis of these tendencies. The dominance hierarchy of sheep and their natural inclination to follow a leader to new pastures were the pivotal factors in sheep being one of the first domesticated livestock species.[46] Furthermore, in contrast to the red deer and gazelle (two other ungulates of primary importance to meat production in prehistoric times), sheep do not defend territories although they do form home ranges.[47] All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, although this behavior varies with breed,[13] and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members.[7] During flocking, sheep have a strong tendency to follow and a leader may simply be the first individual to move. Relationships in flocks tend to be closest among related sheep: in mixed-breed flocks, subgroups of the same breed tend to form, and a ewe and her direct descendants often move as a unit within large flocks.[6] Sheep can become 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.[7][48]

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.[6] 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.[6]

In regions where sheep have no natural predators, none of the native breeds of sheep exhibit a strong flocking behavior.[12]

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.. there’s enough space for many more lambs. Eventually it became a tower 7 (!) lambs. Unfortunately it crashed prematurely, so I couldn’t take a photo…


heep 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. Shepherds may also use herding dogs in this effort, whose highly bred herding ability can assist in moving flocks. Sheep are food-oriented and association of humans with regular feeding often results in sheep soliciting people for food.[49] Those who are moving sheep may exploit this behavior by leading sheep with buckets of feed, rather than forcing their movements with herding.[50][51]


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or … you just float the mother sheep….


Dominance hierarchy

Sheep establish a dominance hiererachy through fighting, threats and competitiveness. Dominant animals are inclined to be more aggressive with other sheep, and usually feed first at troughs.[52] Primarily among rams, horn size is a factor in the flock hierarchy.[53] 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.[53] Merinos have an almost linear hierarchy whereas there is a less rigid structure in Border Leicesters when a competitive feeding situation arises.[54]

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.[54]

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And when the sun goes down ……. you float quietly to the stable. Tomorrow is yet another day full of new jumps!

Intelligence and learning ability

Sheep are frequently thought of as unintelligent animals.[55] Their flocking behavior and quickness to flee and panic can make shepherding a difficult endeavor for the uninitiated. Despite these perceptions, a University of Illinois monograph on sheep reported them to be just below pigs and on par with cattle in IQ.[6] Sheep can recognize individual human and ovine faces, and remember them for years.[56][57] In addition to long-term facial recognition of individuals, sheep can also differentiate emotional states through facial characteristics.[56][57] If worked with patiently, sheep may learn their names and many sheep are trained to be led by halter for showing and other purposes.[6] Sheep have also responded well to clicker training.[6] Sheep have been used as pack animals; Tibetan nomads distribute baggage equally throughout a flock as it is herded between living sites.[6]

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.[58]


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.[59] The bleats of individual sheep are distinctive, enabling the ewe and her lambs to recognize each other’s vocalizations.[60] Vocal communication between lambs and their dam declines to a very low level within several weeks after parturition.[59] 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.[61] Pregnant ewes may grunt when in labor.[62] Rumbling sounds are made by the ram during courting; somewhat similar rumbling sounds may be made by the ewe,[59] especially when with her neonate lambs. A snort (explosive exhalation through the nostrils) may signal aggression or a warning,[59][63] or it may be an alarm or startle response.[64][better source needed]

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And the real show-offs go pretty fast


Sheep have panoramic vision of 330° to 360° and binocular vision of 25° to 50°. They are thought to have colour vision and are able to distinguish between a variety of colours: black, red, brown, green, yellow and white [65] They have no accommodation, so must lift their head to see distant objects. This also means that they are unable to judge depth as accurately as some other animals. Sheep eyes possess very low hyperopia with little astigmatism. Such visual characteristics are likely to produce a well-focused retinal image of objects in both the middle and long distance.[66] Sight is a vital part of sheep communication and when grazing, they maintain visual contact with each other.[67] 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 has stress-reducing properties.[68]

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.[69]

The ram uses his vomeronasal organ (sometimes called the Jacobson’s organ) for sensing the pheromones of ewes and detecting when they are in estrus.[70] The ewe uses her vomeronasal organ for early recognition of her neonate lamb.