Sheep for Newbies

An introduction to basic things about sheep, for those who have as much familiarity with unicorns and dragons, as with sheep. Don’t feel too ignorant if this is you; you are in the company of a great many well-educated professionals!


  • Sheep have tails.  Some are naturally long, and some are naturally short.  Some breeds of sheep are born with long tails, but shepherds may choose to shorten them to prevent disease from developing when flies are attracted to the mess that can collect in a long wooly tail.
  • Sheep have essentially two complete hooves on each foot, instead of a single hoof like a horse does.  A sheep’s hoof, like a goat’s, is split all the way down the center, making two fully separate “toes”, surrounded by hard material, similar to human fingernails, but much harder.
  • The gestation period for a sheep is 5 months.  Some breeds of sheep breed year round, like my Gulf Coasts, meaning they can have babies any month of the year.  Other breeds may be different, their breeding season being triggered by light, meaning once the days start getting shorter, these sheep know it is time to start breeding.  Since they are pregnant for 5 months, this keeps their lambs (babies) from being born when it is too cold, and grass is hard to find.
  • Some sheep breeds are capable of having babies (lambs) up to three times within a two year period. Sheep may have single lambs, twins, or triplets when they “lamb out” (have babies).  Some shepherd selectively breed their sheep to have twins or triplets.  Since ewes (female sheep) have only two nipples, some breeds of sheep handle raising triplets better than others, as do some individual ewes of any breed.  For many, triplets often mean the  weakest one of the triplets may die if the shepherd doesn’t intervene and raise it by feeding the lamb (baby sheep) milk from a bottle, or “graft it on” to another ewe (sheep mother) who is already producing milk.  “Grafting on” means convincing a different mother to adopt an orphaned lamb, by making it smell like her, or like her own lamb, so she will allow it to nurse from her.  My Gulf Coasts have single lambs about half of the time, and twins the rest of the time.
  • Sheep nurse their babies standing up, like cows and horses do, not lying down, like dogs or cats.  If not forced to wean earlier, sheep naturally wean their lambs at 6-9 months of age.
  • Age of Maturity:  Depending upon the breed and genetic heritage of a sheep, it may be capable of sexually reproducing as young as four months old.  My Gulf Coasts mature a little slower, usually between six and thirteen months of age.  It takes this breed about three or four years to reach their full adult size.
  • Lifespan:  Sheep generally live about 10-12 years. However, in really good conditions when they are well cared for, they may live as long as 15-20 years.  The oldest known recorded sheep I’ve heard of, lived 28 years.
  • Diet:  Sheep eat grass.  Some shepherds also feed them grain or seeds, such as corn, sunflowers seeds, oats, or pellets compressed grass. Cut and dried grass is called “hay”.  Different grasses (or hay) go by different names.  I commonly feed a grass called alfalfa in hay form  to my sheep when I want them to have extra calcium, or extra nutrition so they can take care of (nurse) lambs.  Another common kind of hay fed to sheep are Bahia.  Sheep like lots of kinds of different kinds of grasses.  Red or white clover (the same kind of clover 4 leaf clovers come from) are great protein for sheep!  Shepherds have differences of opinion of what are the best things to feed their sheep at various times of year, for different purposes.  It all depends on the needs of the sheep, the resources, knowledge and shepherding philosophy of the farmer.
  • Sheep are “ruminants“.  This means they spend a lot of time eating by ripping up good grass with their teeth, and swallowing it quickly.  Once they are “full”, they lie down for a few hours, and them burp up and slowly chew mouthfuls of grass more fully and carefully.  Their food is so well digested, is part of what makes sheep considered kosher animals under Old Testament law.
  • Some sheep have horns, some do not, and some have little horns called “scurs”.  Whether or not female sheep have horns depends upon the breed. Some of my Gulf Coast ewes (female sheep) have scurs, some do not, but none have horns. Of the Gulf Coast rams, (male sheep) some have big curly horns, some have scurs, and a few have neither.
  • Domestic sheep have shepherds.  They may be raised for wool, meat, or even milk.  Some breeds of sheep are “double purpose” (good for two of those three things), and some are “triple purpose” (good for all three).  Romano and feta cheeses are example of cheese made from sheep’s milk.
  • “Hair” Sheep:   A hair sheep does not need to be sheared.  It has a hairy coat with some wool as an undercoat, but these sheep shed naturally.  Two such breeds are St. Croix, and Katahdin.  These sheep are also considered “meat sheep”, because they have been bred to have a heavier, more muscular body than many wool sheep. For the domestic farmer or shepherd who wants to raise sheep for meat, but not worry about the work or expense of shearing, meat sheep are the way to go.
  • Wool sheep are sheep who grow wool that requires shearing once a year or more.  Shearing normally takes place between March and June, depending upon the weather, climate, needs of the sheep and schedule of the farmer and shearer.  Sheep are not killed to harvest their wool.  Shearing a sheep is the equivalent to taking her to the beauty shop for a short hair cut.
  • Wild sheep don’t have shepherds Some sheep survive just fine as a wild species, running in flocks thru hilly or mountainous terrain without a shepherd.  Most of these sheep are hair sheep.  They Bible typically refers to domesticated sheep who have shepherds.

What questions do you have about sheep?

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