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Sheep

Sheep Facts

Size 23-35 in (60-90 cm) (shoulder height), 35-55 in (90-140 cm) (body length)
Speed Up to 24 mph (40 km/h)
Weight 100-352 lbs (45-160 kg)
Lifespan 10-12 years
Food Grass
Predators Wild dogs, dogs, big cats, bears, birds of prey
Distribution Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australia, Oceania
Habitat Grassland, mountains, steppe, semidesert
Order Even-toed ungulates
Family Bovids
Scientific name Ovis aries
Characteristics Ungulate with soft, wool coat that keeps it warm

Main Characteristics

Sheep are hoofed animals with soft wool coats. There are 20 different species of wild sheep, including the bighorn sheep, snow sheep, Gobi argali, Chinese argali and Kazakhstan argali. The domestic sheep comes from one of these wild sheep: the Armenian mouflon. Let’s take a closer look at this fact sheet.

Sheep Photo: stockphoto mania/Shutterstock

Species

The Domestic Sheep

The domestic sheep was kept by humans around 10,000 years ago, so is among the oldest farm animals. There are around 100 breeds. They have different names depending on their sex and age: suckling lamb (under six months), lamb (under one year), ewe (adult female), wether (castrated adult male) and ram (intact adult male).


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Senses and Abilities

Sheep can hear and smell very well. They also have a wide field of vision: 270 to 320 degrees. This lets them see almost all around them without turning their heads. This is helpful when it comes to identifying predators early on. Sheep struggle with depth perception though, so they are sometimes afraid of shadows or holes in the ground. Their sense of sight is mostly designed to see far and wide but not particularly precisely or sharply. These animals also struggle to see something right in front of their noses as their eyes are positioned on the sides of their heads.

Anatomy and Appearance

Why Do Sheep Have Rectangular Pupils?

Sheep have horizontal, elongated pupils. They expand the animals' field of vision because they allow more light to enter their eyes from the front and sides. So from the direction from which enemies approach in case of doubt. On the other hand, less light enters the eyes from above. And that's a good thing, because it means the sun doesn't dazzle as much. And from above, predators also rarely attack.

Sheep Photo: Benjamin van der Spek/Shutterstock

Intelligence in Sheep

If someone is incapable of thinking for themselves, they might be called a “sheep”. But sheep have good intellectual, emotional and social intelligence. A couple of examples:

They Remember Faces

Sheep can remember more than 50 different sheep faces for over two years. This was found out in a study at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge (England) in 2004. But it gets better ...


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They Can Tell Faces Apart

If you show sheep photos of people, they can tell them apart. They even manage to do this if the faces are photographed from different angles, so from the side and not from the front. This skill requires several parts of the brain. Chimpanzees, pigeons and ravens are also able to do this - there are certainly more animals that have this ability but we don’t know as it hasn’t been researched. Guess what else?

They Interpret Facial Expressions

Sheep recognize negative facial expressions, so when another sheep is in pain or aggressive. This was found out by biologists in a study published in the “Frontiers in Veterinary Science” magazine in 2017.

They Eat Themselves Healthy

When sheep are sick, they eat plants to make them healthy again. This behavior has been seen in chimpanzees.

They Have Friends

Sheep can have close friendships with other sheep, other animals and humans.

They Know Their Names

Sheep Photo: Baronb/Shutterstock

Fun Facts

Why Does Wool Keep You Warm?

The air around us is warmed up by our bodies. We just usually don't notice that, unless we're standing close together in a crowd. When we are wearing something made of wool, the warm air is "trapped" in the sheep's ruffled hair.

Do Sheep Have to Be Shorn?

What happens if you don’t shear a sheep? Does the wool just carry on growing? In 2015, a man in Canberra, Australia, found a runaway sheep called Chris. It hadn’t been shorn for five years, and could hardly move. Sheep normally carry around 11 lbs (5 kg) of wool on their torsos before shearing. Chris was carrying 90 lbs (41.1 kg). So, we can assume that sheep have to be shorn. Otherwise, they would collapse under the weight. But this is only the case for domestic sheep that we humans have bred especially to produce as much wool as possible. Wild sheep don’t grow any “extra” wool, so they survive just fine without us.

Why Should You Help Sheep Up?

Over the past few years, it’s becoming more and more common to see sheep on their sides, unable to get up. This happens if their wool gets too heavy because of moisture and rain, so the animals can’t keep their balance. This only happens to domestic sheep, as they have been bred to produce lots and lots of wool. Animals that have fallen over can’t survive, so: be brave, carefully get the sheep back on its feet and hold or watch it for a few minutes until it can stand and walk again on its own.

Why Do We Say “Black Sheep”?

If someone within a group is the “odd one out”, especially if this is in a negative way, they might be called a black sheep. This name goes back to a time when black wool was much harder to dye than white wool. So, black sheep were less popular and worth less among farmers.

Sheep Photo: Heath Johnson/Shutterstock

Life Expectancy

The Oldest Sheep

Sheep generally live for 10 to 12 years. But one sheep named Lucky from Australia didn’t get the memo :) She lived to an impressive 23 years, 6 months and 28 days old, and is in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Reproduction

Sheep are pregnant for around 150 days.

The Sheep Is Related To:

  • Goat
  • Mouflon

Animals in the Same Biome:


Ungulate Species Fact Sheets


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