What is a sheep?
Looking for some sheep facts? Before we learn that, let us know what a sheep is. A sheep is one of the ruminant mammals that are usually kept as livestock. It is believed that sheep descended from wild mouflons of Asia and Europe.
Note: In general sheep refers to only one species i.e Ovis aries but technically sheep word applies to several species of the genus Ovis. For simplicity’s sake, we are considering only Ovis aries as sheep.
We may know sheep for their wool, meat, hides, etc. but know nothing more about them like did you know that sheep are highly intelligent animals? Read more surprising sheep facts to know about them now!
Species: Ovis aries
Sheep Facts 1-9
1. Sheep are small ruminants. Their hair is called wool and they have horns which are spiral in shape. Sometimes some breeds don’t have horns at all because of selective breeding.
For the breeds that have horns, most of them have a single pair but some have multiple pairs of horns. The horns may be present in both males and females or only in males.
2. Sheep can be seen in multiple colors from dark chocolate brown to pure white. Some are even piebald (pattern of unpigmented or white spots on a pigmented or black background) or spotted.
3. Rams (male sheep) weigh anywhere between 45 and 160 kilograms or 100 and 350 lbs. Ewes (female sheep) weigh around 45 to 100 kilograms or 100 to 220 lbs.
4. A young sheep has 20 teeth and an adult has 32 teeth. Similar to other ruminants, front teeth in the upper jaw are absent.
5. There are over 10,000 breeds in existence as of today. Breeds are categorized usually by the type of their wool. Fine wool breeds produce premium quality wool that is used in textiles like dresses. Next level breeds produce wool that is used in other textiles like carpets.
7. Sheep are herbivores. They feed mostly on roughage and grass and sometimes on hay (during winters). The stomach (just like cows) have four parts. The four parts are rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. Abomasum is similar to the human stomach and hence is called ‘true stomach.’
8. Sheep are diurnal in nature meaning they remain active during the day and sleep during night.
9. They are flock animals. They have a ranking system in their flocks. There is a leader for each flock and the members follow the leader. Though they have home ranges, they are not territorial.
Sheep Facts 10-18
10. They are pretty close to their flock and get stressed if separated. In mix-breed flocks, subgroups of the same breed are formed.
11. Sheep are highly intelligent animals. They are as intelligent as cattle and only slightly less intelligent than pigs. They can recognize individual ovine (sheep) and human faces and remember them for years. Not just that, they can even understand the emotional state through the facial characteristics.
They also express several emotions like anger, fear, boredom, despair, happiness, disgust, despair, rage, etc.
12. If trained (with patience), they can learn their names and you can lead them by a halter as well. They respond well with clicker training. Some sheep have problem solving skills.
13. Sheep produce a variety of sounds like rumbles, bleats, grunts, and snorts. The most commonly used vocalization is bleating or baaing.
14. The visual field of sheep that don’t have facial hair is wide. In general sheep have a visual field of anywhere between 270 degrees to 320 degrees. They can see what’s behind them without turning! They have horizontal slit shaped pupils.
15. Sense of taste is the most important sense organ of a sheep. They prefer sour and sweet plants and leave bitter ones.
16. Rams and ewes have a vomeronasal organ or Jacobson’s organ. This organ helps rams in sensing the pheromones of the ewes when they are in their estrous cycle. Ewes use the organ for the early recognition of neonate lamb.
17. Smell glands are present in front of their eyes and interdigitally on their feet. Their sense of smell is also excellent.
18. Their sense of hearing is amazing. They are very sensitive to sounds.
Sheep Facts 19-27
19. Usually, rams reach sexual maturity at the age of four to six months and ewes when they are six to eight months old. The duration of the estrous cycle is 17 days.
Some ewes display homosexuality and the ewes that were accompained by a male fetus in the womb are sterile and appear masculine.
20. Several ewes mate with the leader of the flock because the leader wins the fight with several other rams in the flock.
21. The gestation period is about five months. The process of birthing is called lambing. Most of the breeds produce one or two lambs at a time. Lambs start walking minutes after they are born. However, they stay dependent on their mothers for around four to six months of the first year.
22. Sheep can’t really defend themselves when they are attacked by predators. There are several predators of sheep like coyotes, fox, dogs, wild cats, ravens, feral hogs, and birds of prey.
23. In the olden days, sheep contributed quite a lot in the global agricultural economy. However, it is now replaced with other species like cow, pig, and chicken.
24. China, India, Australia, and Iran have the largest flocks that serve the needs of local and exportation of mutton and wool.
25. Countries with highest global sheep stocks are China, India, Australia, Nigeria, and Iran.
26. Countries with highest consumption of mutton are Persian Gulf’s Arab states, New Zealand, Greece, Australia, Uruguay, Ireland, and the UK. On an average, these countries consume 3 to 18 kilograms or 14 to 40 lbs of mutton per person every year.
27. Other countries that consume sheep meat are India, China, Middle East, Caribbean, etc.
Sheep Facts 28-36
28. Sheep milk is used to make yogurt and cheese as it contains more fat, minerals, and solids than cow’s milk.
29. Feta of Greece and Bulgaria, France’s Roquefort, Italy’s Ricotta and Pecorino Romano, and Manchego of Spain are some of the popular cheeses made from sheep milk.
30. The milk of sheep contains 4.8% of lactose. So, it may not be great for lactose intolerant people.
31. Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from a somatic cell in 1996. Dolly was a Finnish dorset – in lay terms a sheep.
32. Rarely sheep are used for medical research purposes like pregnant sheep are used as a model for human pregnancy to investigate the effects of hypoxia and malnutrition on the development of fetus.
33. They are also used for the study of facial recognition as their mental process and ours is quite similar. Did you know that they can differentiate a smile from a frown and they prefer a smile over frown just like us.
34. Their lifespan is around 10 to 12 years but sometimes they live for around 20 years.
35. A pound of wool can make nearly 10 miles of yarn! A sheep can produce 2 to 30 pounds of wool (depending on the breed) every year.
36. In 2004, Shrek the Merino sheep hid himself in a cave in fear of getting sheared. He remained there for so long that when the time came for shearing, he produced enough wool to make twenty men suits.
In 2015, Chris the sheep had to shed 89 pounds of wool. Unlike the hair sheep (whose fleece sheds naturally every year, breeds such as Merino have to be sheared else the fleece will keep on growing.
Sheep Facts 36-45
37. We told you that homosexuality is seen in sheep but did you know that they have the same-sex preference for their entire life?
38. Heavily pregnant sheep, sheep with heavy fleece, overweight sleep can’t right themselves if they fall onto their backs.
39. American Presidents – James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington all had sheep. Woodrow Wilson had a flock at the White House during the First World War to keep the grass trimmed to cut extra costs.
40. Sheep usually shows less pain than dogs because weakness attracts the predators and sheep are preyed upon by predators.
41. Sheep have a groove called philtrum in their upper lip that gets divided into half.
42. Sheep are so intelligent that they eat or avoid plants depending on their nutritional and medicinal benefits. They also teach their young the same.
43. In 2011, there were around one billion sheep in the whole world.
44. In the year 2009, Deveronvale Perfection, an eight year old Scottish ram, was €231,000 or over $380,000. The buyer bought it for breeding.
45. The states with the highest number of sheep in the United States are Wyoming, California, and Texas. More than two-thirds of the sheep in the US are in Pacific regions, Southern Plains, and Mountain.