AskDefine | Define sheep

Dictionary Definition



1 woolly usually horned ruminant mammal related to the goat
2 a timid defenseless simpleton who is readily preyed upon
3 a docile and vulnerable person who would rather follow than make an independent decision; "his students followed him like sheep"

User Contributed Dictionary



scēap, from Germanic *skæpo-m. Cognate with Dutch schaap, German Schaf.


  • RP & US: , /ʃiːp/, /Si:p/


  1. A woolly ruminant of the genus Ovis. Male: ram (intact), wether (castrated). Female: ewe. Young: lamb. Carnal: lamb, mutton.
  2. A timid, shy person who is easily led by others.

Derived terms


shy person

Extensive Definition

Domestic sheep (Ovis aries) are quadrupedal, ruminant mammals kept as livestock. Like all ruminants, sheep are even-toed ungulates, also commonly called cloven-hoofed animals. Although the name "sheep" applies to many species, in everyday usage it almost always refers to Ovis aries. Domestic sheep are the most numerous species in their genus, and are most likely descended from the wild mouflon of Europe and Asia.
One of the earliest animals to be domesticated for agricultural purposes, sheep are primarily valued for their fleece and meat. A sheep's wool is the most widely used of any animal, and is typically harvested by shearing. Ovine meat is called lamb when from younger animals and mutton when from older ones. They continue to be important for wool and meat today, and are also occasionally raised for pelts, as dairy animals, or as model organisms for science.
Sheep husbandry is practised throughout the inhabited world, and has played a pivotal role in many civilizations. In the modern era, Australia, New Zealand, Patagonian nations, and the United Kingdom are most closely associated with sheep production. Sheep-raising has a large lexicon of unique terms which vary considerably by region and dialect. Use of the word sheep began in Middle English as a derivation of the Old English word scēap; it is both the singular and plural name for the animal. A group of sheep is called a flock, herd or mob. Adult female sheep are referred to as ewes, intact males as rams, castrated males as wethers, and younger sheep as lambs. Many other specific terms for the various life stages of sheep exist, generally related to lambing, shearing, and age.
Being a key animal in the history of farming, sheep have a deeply entrenched place in human culture, and find representation in much modern language and symbology. As livestock, sheep are most-often associated with pastoral, Arcadian imagery. Sheep figure in many mythologies—such as the Golden Fleece—and major religions, especially the Abrahamic traditions. In both ancient and modern religious ritual, sheep are used as sacrificial animals. In contemporary English language usage, people who are timid, easily led, or stupid are often compared to sheep.


seealso Glossary of sheep husbandry Etymologically, the word modern English language speakers now use to denote ovines is derived from the Old English term scēap, which is akin to the Old High German scāf and probably ultimately originated from Proto-Germanic or Gothic. Before 1200 AD, English spelling preferred scheap, and the shift to the currently used spelling did not occur until about 1280. A few primitive breeds of sheep retain some of the characteristics of their wild cousins, such as short tails. Depending on breed, domestic sheep may have no horns at all (polled), or horns in both sexes (as in wild sheep), or in males only. Most horned breeds have a single pair. While white wool is desirable for large commercial markets, there is a niche market for colored fleeces, mostly for handspinning. Mature sheep have 32 teeth (dental formula: I:0/4 C:0/0 P:3/3 M:3/3). As with other ruminants, the eight incisors are in the lower jaw and bite against a hard, toothless pad in the upper jaw; picking off vegetation. There are no canines, instead there is a large gap between the incisors and the premolars. Until the age of four (when all the adult teeth have erupted), it is possible to see the age of sheep from their front teeth, as a pair of incisors erupts each year.
The front teeth are gradually lost as sheep age, making it harder for them to feed and hindering the health and productivity of the animal. For this reason, domestic sheep on normal pasture begin to slowly decline from four years on, and the average life expectancy of a sheep is 10 to 12 years, though some sheep may live as long as 20 years. Sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads. However, sheep have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to balk. In general, sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.
Sheep and goats are closely related (both are in the subfamily Caprinae), and it can be difficult to distinguish them by their appearance. However, they are separate species, so hybrids rarely occur, and are always infertile. A hybrid of a ewe and a buck (a male goat) is called a sheep-goat hybrid, and is not to be confused with the genetic chimera called a geep. Visual differences between sheep and goats include the beard and divided upper lip unique to goats. Sheep tails also hang down, even when short or docked, while the tails of goats are held upwards. Sheep breeds are also often naturally polled (either in both sexes or just in the female), while naturally polled goats are rare (though many are polled artificially). Males of the two species differ in that buck goats acquire a unique and strong odor during the rut, whereas rams do not. A sheep may also be of a fat-tailed breed, which is a dual-purpose sheep common in Africa and Asia with larger deposits of fat within its tail.
Breeds are also grouped based on how well they are suited to producing a certain type of breeding stock. Generally, sheep are thought to be either "ewe breeds" or "ram breeds". Ewe breeds are those that are hardy, and have good reproductive and mothering capabilities—they are for replacing breeding ewes in standing flocks. Ram breeds are selected for rapid growth and carcass quality, and are mated with ewe breeds to produce meat lambs. Lowland and upland breeds are also crossed in this fashion, with the hardy hill ewes crossed with larger, fast-growing lowland rams to produce ewes called mules, which can then be crossed with meat-type rams to produce prime market lambs. Medium wool breeds have wool between the extremes, and are typically fast-growing meat and ram breeds with dark faces. Some major medium wool breeds, such as the Corriedale, are dual-purpose crosses of long and fine-wooled breeds and were created for high-production commercial flocks. Long wool breeds are the largest of sheep, with long wool and a slow rate of growth. Long wool sheep are most valued for crossbreeding to improve the attributes of other sheep types. For example: the American Columbia breed was developed by crossing Lincoln rams (a long wool breed) with fine-wooled Rambouillet ewes.
Coarse or carpet wool sheep are those with a medium to long length wool of characteristic coarseness. Breeds traditionally used for carpet wool show great variability, but the chief requirement is a wool that will not break down under heavy use (as would that of the finer breeds). As the demand for carpet-quality wool declines, some breeders of this type of sheep are attempting to use a few of these traditional breeds for alternative purposes. Others have always been primarily meat-class sheep. In the quality of their milk, fat and protein content percentages of dairy sheep vary from non-dairy breeds but lactose content does not.
A last group of sheep breeds is that of fur or hair sheep, which do not grow wool at all. Hair sheep are similar to the early domesticated sheep kept before woolly breeds were developed, and are raised for meat and pelts. Some modern breeds of hair sheep, such as the Dorper, result from crosses between wooled and hair breeds. For meat and hide producers, hair sheep are cheaper to keep, as they do not need shearing. Preferences for breeds with uniform characteristics and fast growth have pushed heritage (or heirloom) breeds to the margins of the sheep industry. The bolus is periodically regurgitated back to the mouth as cud for additional chewing and salivation. This is beneficial as grazing, which requires lowering the head, leaves sheep vulnerable to predators, while cud chewing does not.
Sheep follow a diurnal pattern of activity, feeding from dawn to dusk, stopping sporadically to rest and chew their cud. Ideal pasture for sheep is not lawn-like grass, but an array of grasses, legumes and forbs. Types of land where sheep are raised vary widely, from pastures that are seeded and improved intentionally to rough, native lands. Common plants toxic to sheep are present in most of the world, and include (but are not limited to) oak and acorns, tomato, yew, rhubarb, potato, and rhododendron. Sheep are largely grazing herbivores, unlike browsing animals such as goats and deer that prefer taller foliage. With a much narrower face, sheep crop plants very close to the ground and can overgraze a pasture much faster than cattle.
Other than forage, the other staple feed for sheep is hay, often during the winter months. The ability to thrive solely on pasture (even without hay) varies with breed, but all sheep can survive on this diet. When sheep feed on large amounts of new growth and there is precipitation (including dew, as sheep are dawn feeders), sheep need less water. When sheep are confined or are eating large amounts of cured hay, more water is typically needed. Sheep also require clean water, and may refuse to drink water that is covered in scum or algae. Ewes are also flushed during pregnancy to increase birth weights, as 70% of a lamb's growth occurs in the last five to six weeks of gestation.

Behavior and intelligence

Sheep are prey animals with a strong gregarious instinct, and a majority of sheep behaviors can be defined in these terms. The dominance hierarchy of Ovis aries and its natural inclination to follow a leader to new pastures were the pivotal factors in it being one of the first domesticated livestock species. All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, although this behavior varies with breed. Those who are moving sheep may exploit this behavior by leading sheep with buckets of feed, rather than forcing their movements with herding.
In regions where sheep have no natural predators, none of the native breeds of sheep exhibit a strong flocking behavior. Primarily among rams, horn size is a factor in the flock hierarchy. Rams with different size horns may be less inclined to fight to establish pecking order, while rams with similarly sized horns are more so. Relationships in flocks tend to be closest among related sheep: in mixed-breed flocks same-breed subgroups tend to form, and a ewe and her direct descendants often move as a unit within large flocks. A sheep's herd mentality and quickness to flee and panic in the face of stress often make shepherding a difficult endeavor for the uninitiated. Despite these perceptions, a University of Illinois monograph on sheep found them to be just below pigs and on par with cattle in IQ, In addition to long-term facial recognition of individuals, sheep can also differentiate emotional states through facial characteristics. during which they emit a scent and indicate readiness through physical displays towards rams. A minority of sheep display a preference for homosexuality (8% on average)
Without human intervention, rams fight during the rut to determine which individuals may mate with ewes. Rams, especially unfamiliar ones, will also fight outside the breeding period to establish dominance; rams can kill one another if allowed to mix freely. and normal labor may take one to three hours. Although some breeds may regularly throw larger litters of lambs, most produce single or twin lambs. During or soon after labor, ewes and lambs may be confined to small lambing jugs, small pens designed to aid both careful observation of ewes and to cement the bond between them and their lambs. In the case of any such problems, those present at lambing may assist the ewe by extracting or repositioning lambs.
After lambs are stabilized, lamb marking—the process of ear tagging, docking, and castrating—is carried out. Objections to all these procedures have been raised by animal rights groups, but farmers defend them by saying they solve many practical and veterinary problems, and inflict only temporary pain. Throughout history, much of the money and labor of sheep husbandry has aimed to prevent sheep ailments. Historically, shepherds often created remedies by experimentation on the farm. In countries including the United States, sheep lack the economic importance for drugs companies to perform expensive clinical trials to approve drugs for use with sheep. In such instances, shepherds resort to extra-label usage of drugs approved for other animals. The need for traditional anti-parasite drugs and antibiotics is widespread, and is the main impediment to certified organic farming with sheep.
Many breeders take a variety of preventative measures to ward off problems. The first is to ensure that all sheep are healthy when purchased. Many buyers avoid outlets known to be clearing houses for animals culled from healthy flocks as either sick or simply inferior. A common form of preventative medication for sheep are vaccinations and treatments for parasites. Both external and internal parasites are the most prevalent malady in sheep, and are either fatal, or reduce the productivity of flocks. Other animals that occasionally prey on sheep include: felines, bears, birds of prey, ravens and feral hogs. Sheep deaths have even been attributed to cryptids such as the Chupacabra, big cats in Britain and the Drekavac. Sheep producers have used a wide variety of measures to combat predation. Pre-modern shepherds used their own presence, livestock guardian dogs, and protective structures such as barns and fencing. Fencing (both regular and electric), penning sheep at night and lambing indoors all continue to be widely used. causing significant decreases in predator populations. In the wake of the environmental and conservation movements, the use of these methods now usually falls under the purview of specially designated government agencies, rather than sheep producers.
The 1970s saw a resurgence in the use of livestock guardian dogs and the development of new methods of predator control by sheep producers, many of them non-lethal. The species has several characteristics—such as a relative lack of aggression, a manageable size, early sexual maturity, a social nature, and high reproduction rates—that made it particularly amenable to taming. Small feral populations of sheep exist, but exclusively in areas devoid of predators (usually islands). The most common hypothesis states that Ovis aries is jointly descended from the European (O. musimon) and Asiatic (O. orientalis) species of mouflon. It has also been proposed that the European mouflon is an ancient breed of domestic sheep turned feral rather than an ancestor. A second hypothesis suggests that this variation is the result of multiple waves of capture from wild mouflon, similar to the known development of other livestock.
Initially, sheep were kept solely for meat, milk and skins. Archaeological evidence from statuary found at sites in Iran suggests that selection for woolly sheep may have began around 6000 BC, By that span of the Bronze Age, sheep with all the major features of modern breeds were widespread throughout Western Asia. A minority of historians alternatively posit a contentious African theory of origin for Ovis aries. This theory is based primarily on rock art interpretations, and osteological evidence from Barbary Sheep. The first sheep entered North Africa via Sinai, and were present in Ancient Egyptian society between eight and seven thousand years ago. Sheep have always been part of subsistence farming in Africa, but today the only country that keeps an influential number of sheep is South Africa. South African sheep producers, in an attempt to deal with the numerous predators of Africa, invented the livestock protection collar, which holds poison at the jugular to sicken or kill predators. Declaring "Many thanks, too, do we owe to the sheep, both for appeasing the gods, and for giving us the use of its fleece.", he goes on to detail the breeds of ancient sheep and the many colors, lengths and qualities of wool. By the 17th century, the Mesta held in upwards of two million head of merino sheep. After the Napoleonic Wars and the global distribution of the once-exclusive Spanish stocks of Merinos, sheep raising in Spain reverted to hardy coarse-wooled breeds such as the Churra, and was no longer of international economic significance.
The sheep industry in Spain was an instance of migratory flock management, with large homogenous flocks ranging over the entire nation. Comparatively, the ovine model used in England was quite different but had a similar importance to economy of the British Empire. Up until the early 20th century, owling (the smuggling of sheep or wool out of the country) was a punishable offense, and to this day the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords sits on a cushion known as the Woolsack. The high concentration and more sedentary nature of shepherding in the UK allowed sheep especially adapted to their particular purpose and region to be raised, thereby giving rise to an exceptional variety of breeds in relation to the land mass of the country.
An important event not only in the history of domestic sheep, but of all livestock, was the work of Robert Bakewell in the 1700s. Before his time, breeding for desirable traits was often based on chance, with no scientific process for selection of breeding stock. Bakewell established the principles of selective breeding—especially line breeding—in his work with sheep, horses and cattle; his work later influenced Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. His most important contribution to sheep was the development of the Leicester Longwool, a quick-maturing breed of blocky conformation that formed the basis for many vital modern breeds.

In the Americas

No ovine species native to the Americas has ever been domesticated, despite being closer genetically to domestic sheep than many Asian and European species. The first domestic sheep in North America—most likely of the Churra breed—arrived with Christopher Columbus' second voyage in 1493. Many islands off the coast were cleared of predators and set aside for sheep: Nantucket, Long Island, Martha's Vineyard and small islands in Boston Harbor were notable examples. Sheep production peaked in North America during 1940s and 50s at more than 55 million head. The primary challenges to the sheep industry in South America are the phenomenal drop in wool prices in the late 20th century and the loss of habitat through logging and overgrazing. The most influential region internationally is that of Patagonia, which has been the first to rebound from the fall in wool prices. With few predators and almost no grazing competition (the only large native grazing mammal is the guanaco), the region is prime land for sheep raising. In 2007, New Zealand even declared February 15 their official National Lamb Day to celebrate the country's history of sheep production. The First Fleet brought the initial population of 70 sheep from the Cape of Good Hope to Australia in 1788. The next shipment was of 30 sheep from Calcutta and Ireland in 1793. By 1840, New South Wales alone kept 4 million sheep; flock numbers grew to 13 million in a decade.

Animal welfare concerns

The Australian sheep industry is the only sector of the industry to receive strident international criticism for its practices. Sheep stations in Australia are cited in Animal Liberation, the seminal book of the animal rights movement, as the author's primary evidence in his argument against retaining sheep as a part of animal agriculture. The practice of mulesing, in which skin is cut away from an animal's perineal area without anesthesia to prevent cases of flystrike, has been condemned widely as painful and unnecessary. In response, a program of phasing out mulesing is currently being implemented, New Zealand has already phased out the procedure.
Most of the sheep meat exported from Australia are either frozen carcasses to the UK or live animals to the Middle East. Shipped on converted oil tankers in what has been called crowded, unsafe conditions by critics, live sheep are desired by Middle Eastern nations to meet the requirements ritual halal slaughter. A few celebrities and companies have pledged to boycott all Australian sheep products in protest. Other countries such as New Zealand have smaller flocks but retain a large international economic impact due to their export of sheep products. Sheep also play a major role in many local economies, which may be niche markets focused on organic or sustainable agriculture and local food customers. In the 21st century, the sale of meat is the most profitable enterprise in the sheep industry, even though far less sheep meat is consumed than chicken, pork or beef. Sheep intestine can be formed into sausage casings, and lamb intestine has been formed into surgical sutures, as well as strings for musical instruments and tennis rackets. Of all sheep byproducts, perhaps the most valuable is lanolin: the water-proof, fatty substance found naturally in sheep's wool and used as a base for innumerable cosmetics and other products. Farmers may also choose to focus on a particular breed of sheep in order to sell registered purebred animals, as well as provide a ram rental service for breeding. A new option for deriving profit from live sheep is the rental of flocks for grazing; these "mowing services" are hired in order to keep unwanted vegetation down in public spaces and to lessen fire hazard.
Despite the falling demand and price for sheep products in many markets, sheep have distinct economic advantages when compared with other livestock. They do not require the expensive housing used in the intensive farming of chickens or pigs. They are an efficient use of land; roughly six sheep can be kept on the amount that would suffice for a single cow or horse. Sheep can also consume plants, such as noxious weeds, that most other animals will not touch, and produce more young at a faster rate. Also, in contrast to most livestock species, the cost of raising sheep is not necessarily tied to the price of feed crops such as grain, soybeans and corn. Combined with the relatively lower cost of quality sheep, all these factors combine to equal a lower overhead for sheep producers, thus entailing a higher profitability potential for the small farmer.

As food

mainarticle Lamb and mutton Sheep meat and milk were one of the earliest staple proteins consumed by human civilization after the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Throughout modern history, "mutton" has been limited to the meat of mature sheep usually at least two years of age; "lamb" is used for that of immature sheep less than a year.
In the 21st century, the nations with the highest consumption of sheep meat are the Persian Gulf states, New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Uruguay, the United Kingdom and Ireland. In comparison, countries such as the U.S. consume only a pound or less (under 0.5 kg), with Americans eating 50 pounds (22 kg) of pork and 65 pounds (29 kg) of beef. Many of these products are now often made with cow's milk, especially when produced outside their country of origin. They have, however, played an influential role in some fields of science. In particular, the Roslin Institute of Edinburgh, Scotland used sheep for genetics research that produced groundbreaking results. In 1995, two ewes named Megan and Morag were the first mammals cloned from differentiated cells. A year later, a Finnish Dorset sheep named Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. Following this, Polly and Molly were the first mammals to be simultaneously cloned and transgenic. As of 2008, the sheep genome has not been fully sequenced, although a detailed genetic map has been published, and a draft version of the complete genome produced by assembling sheep DNA sequences using information given by the genomes of other mammals.
In the study of natural selection, the population of Soay sheep that remain on the island of Hirta have been used to explore the relation of body size and coloration to reproductive success. Soay sheep come in several colors, and researchers investigated why the larger, darker sheep were in decline; this occurrence contradicted the rule of thumb that larger members of a population tend to be more successful reproductively. The feral Soays on Hirta are especially useful subjects because they are isolated.
Sheep are one of the few animals where the molecular basis of the diversity of male sexual preferences has been examined. However, this research has been controversial, and much publicity has been produced by a study at the Oregon Health and Science University that investigated the mechanisms that produce homosexuality in rams. Organizations such as PETA campaigned against the study, accusing scientists of trying to cure homosexuality in the sheep. OHSU and the involved scientists vehemently denied such accusations. Pregnant sheep are also a useful model for human pregnancy, and have been used to investigate the effects on fetal development of malnutrition and hypoxia. In behavioral sciences, sheep have been used in isolated cases for the study of facial recognition, as their mental process of recognition is qualitatively similar to humans.

Cultural impact

Sheep have had a strong presence in many cultures, especially in areas where they form the most common type of livestock. In the English language, to call someone a sheep or ovine may allude that they are timid and easily led, if not outright stupid. This usage derives from the recessive trait that causes an occasional black lamb to be born in to an entirely white flock. These black sheep were considered undesirable by shepherds, as black wool is not as commercially viable as white wool.

In religion and folklore

Religious symbolism and ritual involving sheep began with some of the first faiths: skulls of rams (along with bulls) occupied central placement in shrines at the Çatalhöyük settlement in 8,000 BCE. In Ancient Egyptian religion, the ram was the symbol of several gods: Khnum, Heryshaf and Amun (in his incarnation as a god of fertility). According to the story of the Binding of Isaac, a ram is sacrificed as a substitute for Isaac after an angel stays Abraham's hand. Eid al-Adha is a major annual festival in Islam in which sheep (or other animals) are sacrificed in remembrance of this act. Greeks and Romans also sacrificed sheep regularly in religious practice, and Judaism also once sacrificed sheep as part of the Korban.


  • The Covenant of the Wild: Why animals chose domestication
  • Sheep and Goat Science, Fifth Edition
  • Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep
  • Beginning Shepherd's Manual, Second Edition
  • Sheep: small-scale sheep keeping for pleasure and profit
  • Living with Sheep: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Flock
sheep in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Scēap
sheep in Arabic: خروف
sheep in Aragonese: Güella
sheep in Asturian: Oveya
sheep in Bambara: Saga
sheep in Min Nan: Mî-iûⁿ
sheep in Tibetan: ལུག་
sheep in Bulgarian: Домашна овца
sheep in Catalan: Ovella
sheep in Czech: Ovce domácí
sheep in Welsh: Dafad
sheep in Danish: Får
sheep in German: Hausschaf
sheep in Navajo: Dibé
sheep in Modern Greek (1453-): Πρόβατο
sheep in Spanish: Ovis aries
sheep in Esperanto: Ŝafo
sheep in Persian: گوسفند
sheep in French: Mouton
sheep in Hakka Chinese: Mièn-yòng
sheep in Korean: 양
sheep in Croatian: Domaća ovca
sheep in Ido: Mutono
sheep in Indonesian: Domba
sheep in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Ove
sheep in Zulu: Izimvu
sheep in Icelandic: Sauðfé
sheep in Italian: Ovis aries
sheep in Hebrew: כבש הבית
sheep in Cornish: Davas
sheep in Haitian: Mouton
sheep in Latin: Ovis aries
sheep in Hungarian: Juh
sheep in Dutch: Schaap
sheep in Japanese: ヒツジ
sheep in Norwegian: Tamsau
sheep in Norwegian Nynorsk: Sau
sheep in Occitan (post 1500): Ovis aries
sheep in Low German: Schaap
sheep in Polish: Owca domowa
sheep in Portuguese: Ovelha
sheep in Romanian: Oaie
sheep in Quechua: Uwiha
sheep in Russian: Овца
sheep in Simple English: Domestic sheep
sheep in Slovenian: Domača ovca
sheep in Serbian: Овца
sheep in Finnish: Lammas
sheep in Swedish: Får
sheep in Tagalog: Tupa
sheep in Thai: แกะ
sheep in Turkish: Koyun
sheep in Ukrainian: Вівця
sheep in Walloon: Bedot
sheep in Yiddish: שעפעלע
sheep in Chinese: 羊

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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