Archive for the ‘Sheep History’ Category


I think the other sheep is a Stone sheep.

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Those antelope-like mammals are actually sheep, as nearly everyone in the comments section recognized.

These are Barbados black-belly sheep. They are a hair sheep breed, and they are actually quite tolerant of very hot and humid conditions.

They do not grow a woolly undercoat when they are living in tropical and subtropical conditions. When they live in colder climates, they do develop a woolly undercoat, which is shed in the spring.

This is a naturally polled breed, and it is thought to have African ancestry.  The sheep ma  have come from slave ships that carried them across the Atlantic from West Africa.

It is one of several hair sheep from the West Indies/Caribbean region.

I should also point out that there is a derivative of this breed called a “Barbado.” The Barbado has horns, and it is the result of breeding the black belly with the Rambouillet sheep and the mouflon. (More the mouflon coming soon!)

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Sardinian mouflon.

Domestic sheep are not that common in North America. When I write about this species, it is almost as if I am discussing an animal that other peoples in far distant lands keep. Sheep are just not a part of the current American landscape. You can drive for miles down rural roads in virtually any part of the country, and you’ll be very lucky to see a single flock.

And if we look at the raw numbers, it turns out that sheep just aren’t that numerous here.

There are about 6 million sheep in the US. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that America is home to over 96 million cattle and over 61 million pigs.  We are not currently a major sheep producing nation.

This was not always the case. Indeed, it was the sheep trails that opened up much of the West for settlers to come pouring in. Their numbers were always relatively high, even with the constant worries of poison plants and predation from wolves, bears, cougars, coyotes, and free roaming domestic dogs. Sheep had high economic value for their wool and meat.

The US sheep population continued to grow until the 1950’s, when it was estimated that 55 million grazed our pastures and open ranges. Then wool prices began to drop. And Americans lost their appetite for lamb and mutton. These meats are not universally palatable, especially when the majority of the population is accustomed to eating chicken, pork, and beef.

Of course, sheep are far from a rare species. The worldwide population is estimated at  over 1 billion. China and Australia have the largest populations. China has nearly 144 million, while Australia has over 99 million.

The US and Canada combined have about 7 million sheep total. We just aren’t sheep people (at least at this point in history).

Like all domesticated animals, sheep have benefited from their relationship with us.  Wild sheep numbers in Eurasia and North America are nothing compared to that 1 billion figure for domestic sheep.  In fact, there are more than twice as many sheep in the world as there are domestic dogs. Current estimates suggest that there are only about 400 million dogs worldwide.

Now, domestic dogs are the oldest of our domesticated species. Estimates for the  date of their domestication range from 12,000 to 135,000 years ago.

However, the sheep is thought to have been the second animal that joined us in this venture. The oldest domestic sheep are thought to date to 11,000 years before present.

Sheep are our oldest hoof stock. This will be the first post in a series about this animal. These posts will explore their domestication and their natural history. They will also examine how domestication has changed the sheep into an animal that is very dependent upon people for its survival.

And because of their long association with us, domestic sheep are as much an enigma as domestic dogs are.

Although it is pretty conclusive that domestic dogs are a form of Canis lupus, this fact is still not universally accepted. It was even less accepted before the advent of sophisticated techniques for the analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. Charles Darwin believed that wolves, coyotes, and all forms of jackal had something to do with the origin of the domestic dog. Konrad Lorenz wasted a big chunk of Man Meets Dog, describing lupus dogs that were derived from wolves and aureus dogs derived from jackals.

Well, the wild ancestor of the sheep is still not been fully documented. It is believed to have descended from some form of mouflon, but mouflon taxonomy is itself a giant mess. It is possible that several types of mouflon played a role in the domestic sheep, and it is also possible that other species of wild sheep–especially the urial and the argali– may have contributed genes to the domestic sheep.

I hope this introductory post gives you some idea of what to look for in the coming days. I have no idea how long this particular series will go.

The reason why I writing it this way is because I tried to put all of this in one long post last night, and it was far too long.

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