The domestic sheep, the most common species of the sheep genus (Ovis), is a woolly ruminant quadruped which probably descends from the wild mouflon of South Asia and Southwest Asia. Sheep breeders refer to female sheep as ewes, intact males as rams, castrated males as wethers, yearlings as hoggets, and younger sheep as lambs. In sheep husbandry, a group of sheep is called a herd, flock or mob. See other specialized vocabulary below.
The sheep is closely related to the goat, both being in the goat
antelope subfamily Caprinae, itself part of the family Bovidae.
However, sheep and goats differ genetically so greatly that
cross-species hybrids do not occur.
Sheep and shepherds have played a significant role in Judeo-Christian religious texts since time immemorial. Here, sheep are seen in front of Jerusalem's Damascus Gate. Sheep have had associations with many cultures, especially in the Mediterranean area and Great Britain (in particular, Wales), where they form the most common type of livestock in pastoralism. Selective breeding of sheep has frequently occurred and in Egyptian Mythology the ram was the symbol of Heryshaf.
A wide symbolism relates to sheep in ancient art, traditions and culture. Judaism uses many sheep references including the Passover lamb. Christianity uses sheep-related images, such as: Christ as the good shepherd, or as the sacrificed Lamb of God (Agnus Dei); the bishop's Pastoral; the lion lying down with the lamb (a reference to all of creation being at peace, without suffering, predation or otherwise). Greek Easter celebrations traditionally feature a meal of Paschal lamb. Sheep also have considerable importance in Arab culture; Eid ul-Adha is a major annual festival in Islam in which a sheep is sacrificed.
Herding sheep plays an important historic-symbolic part in the Jewish and Christian faiths, since Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and King David all worked as shepherds.
The ram is the first sign of the Western zodiac, in which it is known as Aries. The sheep (or goat) also forms one of the animals associated with the 12-year cycle of in the Chinese zodiac, related to the Chinese calendar. Chinese tradition associates each animal with certain personality traits. See: Sheep (Zodiac).
The raising of sheep for wool and meat became a major industry in colonial Australia and New Zealand and remains significant. As a result, sheep and sheep shearing have become an important part of the folklore and cultural tradition of these two countries. In New Zealand, sheep outnumber the human population 12 to 1.
Sheep are often associated with obedience due to the widespread perception that they lack intelligence and their undoubted herd mentality, hence the pejorative connotation of the adjective 'ovine'. In George Orwell's satirical novel Animal Farm, sheep are used to represent the ignorant and uneducated masses of revolutionary Russia. The sheep are unable to be taught the subtleties of revolutionary ideology and can only be taught repetitive slogans such as "Four legs good, two legs bad" which they bleat in unison at rallies. The rock group Pink Floyd wrote a song using sheep as a symbol for ordinary people, that is, everyone who isn't a pig or dog. People who accept overbearing governments have been pejoratively referred to as "sheeple".
In contemporary events, controversy has raged over a scientific study at the Oregon Health and Science University which, because of the unedited printing of a press-release by PETA in a British newspaper, has been accused of attempting to find a way to breed out the minority trait which causes some rams to prefer homosexual relations. Further investigation revealed it only attempts to study the genetics and circumstances which produce the phenomenon and not "cure" it. Even in this regard, the study has had implications for the agenda of such Fundamentalist Christian advocacy groups such as Focus on the family, as it may provide evidence to the contrary of the idea that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle rather than a trait affected by genetics.
There are many breeds of sheep, but these are generally
sub-classable as wool class, hair class and sheep meat variety
Major wool breeds include Merino, Rambouillet, Romney, and Lincoln. Drysdale and Herdwick are bred specifically for carpet wool.
Breeds of meat sheep include Suffolk, Hampshire, Dorset, Columbia, Texel, and Montadale.
Breeders of dual-purpose wool class sheep concentrate on fast growth, multiple births, ease of lambing and hardiness. An easy-care sheep is the Coopworth that has long wool and good lamb meat production qualities. Another dual-use breed is the Corriedale. Sometimes sheep are used for both purposes equally and cross-breeding is practiced to maximise both outputs. For example, Merino ewes providing wool may be crossed with Suffolk rams to produce lambs which are robust and suitable for the meat market.
Hair class sheep are the original class of sheep in the world, developed for meat and leather. They are prolific and highly resistant to disease and parasites. Dorpers and Kahtahdins are composite breeds of wool and hair crosses with different degrees of wool/hair mixes within the hair class. True hair sheep such as St. Croix, Barbados Blackbelly, Mouflon, Santa Inez and Royal White shed their protective down fiber to an all hair coat in the Spring/Summer. Hair class sheep are becoming more popular for their no-shear aspects.
This Sheep Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub