Domestic sheep - Ovis aries
Domestic sheep - Ovis aries

Sheep are domestic mammals, descended from the wild mouflon of Europe and Asia (Ovis orientalis).

Within this species, apart from domestic sheep, there are mouflons and urials. They are all quadrupedal ungulates, which means they walk on four legs and use the tip of their toes, usually hoofed, to sustain their body weight. Other quadrupedal ungulates include horses, zebras, tapirs, camels, pigs, giraffes, deer or hippopotamuses.

They belong to the order of even-toed ungulates, which are those whose weight is borne, mainly, by two toes that are more developed than the rest. Sheep are also ruminants, which are herbivore animals that digest food in two phases: first, they swallow it; then, they regurgitate and rechew it.

Sheep were one of the first animals to be domesticated for agricultural purposes – it is estimated that this was accomplished around the 11th century BC –, because of their wool, meat and milk. Wool spinning began approximately 5,000 years ago. Sheep farming is practiced in most parts of the world, making a total of over 1,200 million sheep, according to the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

Sheeps. By Monika23 | Shutterstock.com
Sheeps. By Monika23 | Shutterstock.com

Sheep are average sized and can be many different colours: white, brown, spotted or even black.

Some breeds (there are around 1,100) have horns, others don’t. In fact, in some breeds, only males have horns; in others, females have them too. Sheep are born with long tails, but they are usually docked by farmers.

As many other herbivores, their eyes are placed to the sides of their head and they have rectangular, horizontally elongated pupils. This improves their peripheral vision and, consequently, allows them to spot potential predators more efficiently. Interestingly enough, the eyes of predators usually face forward and they have vertical or round pupils, which allow them to easily calculate distances.

Sheep breed. By A7880S | Shutterstock.com
Sheep breed. By A7880S | Shutterstock.com
COMMON NAMECONSERVATION STATUS
Common sheepNot evaluated (NE)
SCIENTIFIC NAMESIZE
Ovis orientalis aries46 – 180 cm (18 – 71 in)
FAMILYWEIGHT
Bovidae14 – 160 kg (31 – 350 lb)
ORDERLIFESPAN
Artiodactyla10 – 12 years
CLASSGESTATION PERIOD
Mammalia152 days
POPULATIONDIET
1,200 millionsPasture
HABITATRANGE
They live in areas with pastures, which they feed on.It is a domestic animal, distributed by humans around the world.

Did you know sheep milk has three times as much protein as cow or goat milk?

This makes it easier to digest. Additionally, sheep don’t drink running water (from rivers or streams); they only drink still water. Another interesting fact is that the oldest breed in the United States is the Navajo-Churro sheep, which is well suited to extremes of climate. Furthermore, like in some other breeds, Navajo-Churro males can have four fully developed horns.

Navajo Churro. From Puddleduck Farm
Navajo Churro. From Puddleduck Farm

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