Among domestic animals used for food, there are three major ones: cattle, pigs, and sheep.
Sheep have a great advantage for the farmer. They not only produce meat (lamb and mutton), but they also produce wool.
The fur of sheep has been used for hundreds of years to make all sorts of things. Fine clothes like those cashmere sweaters, ordinary clothes like suits and long woolly underwear, towels, blankets, rugs, mats, and in Scotland, kilts and plaids, and a whole lot more things, too.
Sheep are classified according to the type of wool they produce. Among the “fine-wool” group are the Merino sheep.
These originated in Spain more than 200 years ago. They have heavy folds of skin on their bodies, and the wool they produce is very fine and about two inches long.
This wool makes some of the finest clothes.
The rams (males) have large curly horns but the ewes (females) don’t have any.
The “medium-wool” breeds are quite common in North America. Many of them originated in Britain, as you can see by their names—Shropshire, Cheviot, Suffolk, Dorset, and so on.
Southdown sheep were introduced into North America about 200 or so years ago. They are small compared to some of the others.
In the real old days, before lawnmowers were invented, they often were used to graze estates. They kept the lawns nice and short!
Modern growers can expect lambs to weigh in at about 50-80 pounds at about five months. Those lamb chops, and rack of lamb, are some of the dinner delicacies of the modern dinner table.
Of the medium-wool group, the Southdown probably is the smallest. It was brought to North America in the late 1700s.
It produces good wool, at about two or two-and-a-half inches in length. As well, it has a solid, well-formed carcass for meat.
Since it also yields about six-eight pounds of wool every year, it is one of the most popular breeds in eastern North America.
Another very popular one is the Shropshire sheep. This is a pretty good-sized animal, with ewes running to 150-180 pounds and rams maybe up to 250.
This one is used in farm flocks more than any other—mainly because of its general good qualities.
It is a medium-sized, general purpose kind of sheep. Its wool is of excellent quality, and the ewes have a strong tendency to have twin lambs in the spring, which makes sheep farmers really happy!
Young sheep begin to nurse when they are only about two or three hours old. When they are two weeks old or so, they begin to start nibbling at hay or grass.
And by the time they are four-six months old, they can be marketed as “spring lamb,” which I’m sure you have all seen in the supermarket.
And there are some other sheep which are in the group known as the “long wool” breeds. Leicester and Cotswold are two of these. Their wool is quite long, and usually is rather coarse and curly.
And there are some different ones, too. There are a few carpet-wool sheep. They have long and coarse wool used, naturally, for things like rugs and carpets.
One of these, from Scotland, is the Black-faced Highland. You wouldn’t likely want a comforter made from this wool.
And then there are the Karakul sheep, from Russia. These do not produce good wool at all, but the pelts of the lambs are used as furs. This is their main use as they don’t have very good meat.
Sheep have a bad habit of panicking and stampeding if they are frightened, which they often are. They usually are protected by dogs.
Dogs used as sheepdogs are truly amazing. They can round up the sheep, start up a flock, stop it, put sheep into a pen, or into another pasture—all at the sound of the master’s whistle or command.
The Scotch Collie, the Border Collie, the English Sheepdog, and the German Shepherd are some of the very best.
Sheep are preyed upon by wolves, coyotes, bears, mountain lions, and sometimes by dogs who have “gone bad” and developed a taste for persecuting the sheep which they are supposed to protect.
Sheep have provided food and clothing for man ever since we got into the game of agriculture thousands of years ago. Very likely, they will continue to do so for thousands of years to come.
By the way, the scientific name for the sheep is Ovis aries. You might recognize the astrologer’s “Aries the Ram.”
Nature, Science & You logo