7 Things You Didn’t Know About Sheep

Sheep are clever and fascinating. They’ve co-evolved with humans providing companionship, food, clothing, shelter and carbon sequestration. Read on to learn how sheep have and will continue to play a key role in our communities.

Photo by  Allie Hymas

Photo by Allie Hymas


Wool, meat, milk: sheep have sustained humans’ most basic needs for thousands of years. Today, American sheep farmers raise over 5 million sheep annually. This represents a major downturn since 1946 when the domestic sheep flock totaled 56 million, putting the US as the top global sheep producer at the time.

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Although the advent of synthetic fibers and changes in the meat industry have pushed sheep out of the spotlight, these wooly allies have played a critical role in our survival for a long time. They have quite a few interesting characteristics, too.

1. Sheep are among the first animals domesticated by humans.

Sheep are some of our oldest animal allies, the descendants of the wild, large-horned Mouflon that roamed Europe and Asia. The species we now know as Ovis aries became deeply interdependent with humans sometime between 11000BC and 9000BC as early shepherds began selecting herds for good temperament and productivity.

Domesticated sheep are not originally native to the United States. The first domestic sheep came with the Conquistadores in the 1500s, beginning with Columbus’ arrival in 1492. 

Photo by  Allie Hymas

Photo by Allie Hymas


2. Sheep have rectangular pupils 

This unnerving gaze actually helps them have an almost 360-degree view of their surroundings. Allowing them to see a wide-angle in the harsh glare of the open grasslands. Sheep have mediocre depth perception, however, which is why mothers rely on the unique smell and sound of their lamb’s voice to find them. 

3. Sheep don’t have teeth on their upper jaw, but they have a special top lip that is  divided into two parts called a philtrum

Two upper lips! The divided hemisphere’s of the sheep’s philtrum lets them be selective as they eat, avoiding stems, grabbing leaves and blades, and biting forage more closely to the ground than other ruminants.


4. Wool never stops growing, but not all sheep have wool

While hair sheep like Khatadins and Jacobs don’t have wool, most sheep breeds will grow their woolly fleeces continuously whether or not they are shorn. In fact, in 2014 a sheep named Shrek was found hiding in a cave after evading shearers for six years. His fleece was 60 pounds, enough to make 20 men’s suits.

The average sheep produces 8-lbs of wool per year. When done correctly, shearing does not hurt sheep. Most shearings take place in the spring when sheep need relief from the warming temperatures. Wool sheep have co-evolved with humans and are dependent on us to help them manage their fleeces.  It would be cruel not to shear them for a variety of reasons. The heavy wool limits their mobility and makes them more susceptible to experiencing fly-strike, both of which can lead to death

5. Sheep aren’t stupid

Despite the common assumption that sheep are simple-minded followers, a study by CSIRO’s Animal Behavior and Welfare director, Carolina Lee, showed that sheep can navigate a complex maze when offered a social reward. In a 2007 study, neurobiology researcher Keith Kendrick showed that sheep can remember 50 other sheep’s faces two years later. The University of California cataloged the complex social networks of rams, which showed that sheep can be empathetic and help one another.

Photo by  Allie Hymas

Photo by Allie Hymas


6. Only half of Americans have ever tried lamb and it’s really good for you

According to the American Lamb Board, only 50% of Americans have ever tried lamb. The amount of lamb eaten per person this year is about 0.6lbs, compared to 55lbs of beef. The decline in consumer interest since the 1950s was caused by a variety of factors, one of which was bad experiences American GIs had with eating tough meat from very old sheep during World War II. 

Lamb packs a powerful punch of essential nutrients, with high levels of zinc, niacin, selenium, vitamin B12 and three times the omega 3 fatty acids than beef. A three-ounce. serving of lamb has only 175 calories but half your daily protein needs. You’d have to eat 742.2 calories or about 107 almonds to get the same amount of protein.

If you tried lamb and you didn’t like it, it might be because of lanolin, which is the oil sheep produce to keep their fleece clean. Most fine-wool sheep such as Merino have a lot of lanolin, while hair sheep and coarse-wool sheep such as Katahdin, Dorset, or Icelandic tend to have less yielding a milder flavor in the meat. If you prefer a milder flavor, find a local farmer that offers a coarse-wool sheep breed or ask your local butcher.

Photo by  Allie Hymas

Photo by Allie Hymas


7. Sheep have an important role in soil regeneration 

Grazing animals can improve soil health and pasture vigor through strategic grazing methods. Sheep offer the unique advantage of their size, which makes a smaller impact on the land and allows for integration with other crops for added soil health. Sheep can eat many types of plants that are not as palatable to cattle, especially primitive breeds like Jacob’s and Navajo Churro. This allows them to control weed species naturally, reducing the need for chemical inputs like herbicides. For beginning farmers or farmers with limited resources, sheep offer a great way to begin a livestock operation. They are smaller and easier to handle than cattle while still offering the multifaceted benefits of grazing.

Ongoing research at UC Davis has shown that moving grazing animals in strategic patterns can sequester carbon. So far, the research estimates that grazing American rangelands in this holistic manner could sequester 330 million metric tons of carbon.


Sheep are part of the path to better meat

Sheep are not only clever, fascinating creatures but also long-term allies in helping humans thrive. After co-evolving with them as a major source of our food, clothing, shelter and even carbon sequestration, domesticated sheep need us to keep them in our diets for the continued benefits to both species. 

To find lamb for sale in your area that meets the highest environmental and ethical standards, browse each farm’s website looking for specific references to improving soil health. You can also find your local Savory Hub, which will have a list of farmers who have completed training in grazing their livestock for optimal animal and environmental wellbeing, or review Eat Wild’s listings.

While pasture-based sheep farms are cleaning up our environment, sheep are under attack from voices who are unaware of the regenerative impact that ruminant animals including sheep can have on rehabilitating land, preserving habitats, and providing nutrient-dense protein to communities. Support Sacred Cow to bring the environmental, nutritional and ethical case for better meat to the public.

Allie Hymas raises Icelandic sheep for meat and fiber in Southern Oregon's Rogue Valley. In addition to writing about sustainable agriculture, Allie supports and advocates for family farms as Northwest Farmer's Union secretary. Learn more @hymasfamilylamb or www.hymasfamilylamb.com.