Sheep are bovids, meaning they’re related to cows and goats. They are some of the most widespread livestock in the world, and one of the oldest species of animal to be domesticated by humans.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom – Animalia
Phylum – Chordata
Class – Mammalia
Order – Artiodactyla
Family – Bovidae
Subfamily – Caprinae
Genus – Ovis
Species – O. aries
Common Names – Sheep
The domestic sheep is a fairly small ruminant, meaning it has a many-chambered stomach that ferments its food before it is finally digested. Their bodies are covered in tightly curled, crimped wool that may be a range of colorations. The most common coat color is white, as the dominant color gene favors a lack of pigmentation. If two parent sheep both possess the gene for black pigment in a specific configuration known as heterozygous, about 25% of the time they will give birth to a black sheep. Though sheep are similar to the closely related goat, they are usually stockier and more heavily built, with curlier wool coats.
Most sheep breed seasonally, though some can breed all year round. Usually a group of females, called ewes, will mate with a single male (ram), which is chosen by the breeder. In feral populations of domestic sheep turned wild, rams will hold contests to assert dominance, butting their horned heads together. Sheep gestate for around five months, and usually give birth to one or two calves, called lambs.
Sheep are social animals who travel in large flock, typically following a lead sheep or a human shepherd. Sheep are strongly tied to the flock, and congregate in tight groups that often don’t require a fenced in area for containment, though herding dogs may be used to keep a sheep in a desired range. Sheeps typically communicate through bleating or “baa-ing”, which they use for a variety of purposes. Ewes use bleating to contact their lambs, and sheep may baa when isolated from the flock, or as a way to signal danger and distress.
Sheep were most likely domesticated from the mouflon (Ovis orientalis orientalis), over 10,000 years ago. They are bred for their wool, meat, leather and milk. There are currently over 200 breeds of sheep that vary based on size, coat, and coloration, as well as other selectively bred qualities. Though sheep have been domesticated for many thousands of years, the pioneering process of selective breeding in agriculture was developed by Robert Bakewell in Britain in the 1700s. Bakewell revolutionized many agricultural practices regarding horses and cows, but was most known for his work in improving the size and wool quality of sheep.
There are an estimated one billion domesticated sheep in the world today. While the Ovies aries sheep is in no danger of extinction, many wild members of the genus Ovis are less fortunate. Two subspecies of wild sheep, the urial (O. orientalis vignei) and the mouflon (O. orientalis orientalis) are listed as vulnerable and in need of protection.