Interesting Facts About Sheep and Goats

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A painting of a sheep in the meadow.
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A painting of sheep grazing in a meadow.

Sheep and goats

So you don’t ever want anybody to pull the wool over your eyes … you say you hate being fleeced. Well, then, come on down and pull up a chair. Have we got some info for ewe!

Imagine the confusion: More than 11,000 years ago, sheep looked like goats.

According to experts who know these kinds of things, mouflon — from which our Ovis aries came — walked like goats, gave milk like goats, ate the same foods as goats, gave meat like a goat, and … whoa.

Wool. What a game-changer.

Our ancestors recognized a wild and wooly thing when they saw it, and they domesticated sheep not just once but in three different places, somewhere around 10,500 years ago. Despite any early resemblance of the two animals, that time frame actually predates goat domestication. Goats, as it turns out, are always late to the party.

Back then, there were just a handful of sheepish kinds — you could get a sheep, or you could get a sheep. These days, however, there are more than 900 kinds of non-wild ovines, descendants from three basic lines: European, Asian and African — with more than a billion sheep on this planet. Some offer wool to be shorn. Some offer hair for the plucking. Most are meat or milk animals. Some sheep can take snow and cold, while others would rather vacation in
the Bahamas.

You can decorate your pasture with a Barbados Blackbelly, if you wish, or brighten things up with a Beulah Speckled Face sheep from Wales. You can get an Icelandic sheep, brought over by the Vikings, or a long-eared Kooka from Pakistan. Pick up a fierce-looking Manx Loaghtan, snag a heavy-duty Merino sheep, or get a Churra, whose ancestors probably came to North America with Christopher Columbus. Find yourself a Lincoln sheep — the biggest, at up to 350 pounds — or a tiny Shetland sheep. Maybe you shall get a Ushant. Or you can settle for a plain old Cheviot, Hampshire or Dorset, like a lot of North American farmers raise.

Put a mature male sheep, also called a ram, in with a mature female sheep, otherwise known as a ewe, and in about five months — and probably in the middle of the night — you’ll have one to three lambs (sometimes even four or more) to watch; twins are quite common. Lambs are tiny, starting out about the weight of an average human baby, and they have tails that, to the civilian, may seem more like a dog’s tail. That’s because docking, which is a common practice, isn’t done until a week or so after birth. That explains why most sheep don’t have tails, but does nothing to explain Little Bo Peep’s predicament.

What’s next?

What will you do with those lambikins? Well, sheep are good for wool, of course — up to 30 pounds of the stuff from the average sheep, once a year, except for the hair breeds, of course. The animal’s breed determines the length and thickness of the wool’s fiber, which then determine its use. Wool can be dyed (sheep hair cannot) and spun, woven, used for carpets, tapestries, clothing, blankets and more.

In addition to wool, sheep give us meat, and their intestines make sausage casings and suture material for veterinarians. From the bones, horns and hooves, we get charcoal, shampoo, bone meal, adhesive tape and gelatin, which may wind up in your marshmallows. Sheep fat is found in cosmetics and asphalt. Their wool gives us lanolin. Their hides are used for sporting equipment. Researchers love them in the lab. And sheep are handy for counting when you’ve got a bit of insomnia.

And if you’ve heard of sheep (who hasn’t herd of sheep?) then you’ll want to know how to call them: In Spain, the oveja say beeeee; in France, their mouton say bêê; in Turkey, a koyun says maeh-maeh, and over in Germany, a schaf says baehh-baehh.

But right here in the good old United States of America, we know exactly what they say, and that ain’t ba-a-a-a-a-a-ad!  

Read more: Check out GRIT’s Guide to Sheep Breeds well-suited to the small-scale homestead.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is a book reviewer and trivia collector who lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and 11,000 books.

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