sheep (Ovis orientalis aries) They are medium-sized herbivorous mammals from Central Europe and Asia that graze on grass and eat berries. They are raised primarily for meat and wool, but also for milk (although the milking of sheep is much rarer than that of goat or cow).

In the world there are, at least, about 1.000 billion around the planet where they are very common in New Zealand, Auestralia, parts of North America and the United Kingdom where it is raised to trade with it. Sheep wool is one of the most common and used materials in the world.

They were the first animals to be domesticated by humans and since then sheep have played an important role in the life and agricultural economy of the world. Today, we continue to consume their meat and milk to feed us and their wool to warm us.

In many countries and cultures throughout history it has been used as a sacrificial animal in multiple rituals, especially in Abrahamic traditions.

Flock of sheep

Flock of sheep

Features

There are currently about 1.300 different species around the world, of which 200 are domestic. However, there is not much difference and all the different species are very similar to each other and only vary in size and weight. They are strongly related to goats and although they may seem very similar, they are different species and the combination of both will result in an infertile hybrid.

Sheep is a small ruminant animal covered by curly hair known as wool and in many species with horns forming a lateral spiral. As a result of selective selection by humans, they have become neotenic. Although they retain some characteristics (such as short tails), many breeds have lost their horns only in males, only in females, or in both sexes.

Height and weight depend on the breed of the sheep. Their growth is an inherited trait that is selected by humans for breeding. They usually weigh between 45 and 100 kg and the rams between 45 and 160 kg.

The youngest ones have 20 teeth but as they mature they will end up with 32 teeth. Like all ruminants, the front teeth of the lower jaw bite against a hard, toothless pad on the upper jaw. These are used to collect vegetation to be ground by the posterior teeth before being swallowed.

As horses, the age of the sheep can be detected by their front teeth, since every year a pair of milk teeth are replaced by adult teeth. When the set of eight front teeth is complete, we can determine that the sheep is four years old. As the sheep ages, their front teeth are lost, which makes it difficult for them to feed, health, and productivity. For this reason, domestic sheep in normal pastures begin to decline slowly after four years. The life expectancy of a sheep is about 10 - 12 years, although some have reached 20 years.

They have good hearing, therefore they are very sensitive to noise. Vision is peripheral around 270º to 320º and their pupils are horizontal with a slit shape. They are able to see behind you without moving their head. Some breeds have wool on their faces, therefore their peripheral vision is reduced unless they have been shorn. They understand depth poorly, shadows and plunges can cause sheep to slip so they tend to flee the dark and seek out bright spots.

His sense of smell is pretty good. They have olfactory glands just in front of the eyes and interdigitally on the feet. The purpose of these glands in the feet is uncertain, although it is believed that they could be related to reproduction, the secretion of a waste product, an odor marker to find the rest of the herd when it has been lost. Those of the face are used in reproductive behaviors.

The color in domestic sheep is quite broad compared to wild sheep. The most characteristic color of sheep is white, but its colors range from pure white to dark chocolate brown. The reason why most of the sheep are white is because from the beginning of domestication only sheep with white hair that is easy to dye in various colors were selected. Despite selection, other colors can sometimes appear as a recessive trait in white herds. Although there is also a market for fleece of other colors.

When feeding on vegetables, they have a complex system, like goats or cows, to digest the grass composed of four chambers that allows them to break down the cellulose of stems, leaves, and seed shells into simpler carbohydrates.

Wild sheep

Wild sheep are larger than domestic sheep and have larger horns that are used to defend themselves from predators or other males and are great mountaineers. The color of these species is limited to various shades of brown.

Adult sheep

Adult sheep

Habitat

Sheep are found all over the world, but predominate in Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa, South America, the western United States, and in certain areas of the Iberian Peninsula.

In the wild they are very versatile as they can live in desert areas, high altitude areas, they can even live in polar areas with very low temperatures. In captivity, domestic sheep are accustomed to any type of environment, since humans will provide them with protection against cold or heat in pens and will remain there until they are slaughtered or die old.

Food

Sheep are completely herbivorous animals. Most breeds prefer to graze on grasses and other short forages, avoiding the tougher parts of plants that goats readily eat. Like goats, sheep use their tongue to select with their tongue the most easily digestible or nutritious part of the plant.

Another food eaten by sheep is hay, usually during the winter months. The ability to survive on grass alone (even without hay) varies by breed, but most can survive on this diet.

Predators

Sheep are preyed upon by numerous wild animals, large carnivores such as dogs, wolves, and wild cats. They are kept in herd to protect each other and prevent predators from killing a lonely or unsuspecting sheep. In areas where they do not have predators, sheep are more careless and do not flock so easily, and if they are under human control, dogs will have to be used.

Reproduction

The vast majority of species only reproduce once a year. Similar to other herd animals, a certain number of sheep (female sheep) will mate with a single ram (male sheep). In freedom the ram will have fought a fierce fight for the female, while in captivity the breeder will have chosen the ram. Each female will have between one or two lambs but the number will change depending on the species and others can even reproduce throughout the year instead of once a year.

They reach their sexual maturity at six or eight months when they are female, the rams reach it at four or six months. However, in other species puberty can reach 3 or 4 months and varies by species. The sexual cycle is approximately every 17 days, which the female will emit a scent to indicate to the rams that they are ready. Although not all will come to her call since among the rams a minority (8% on average) are homosexuals.

During reproduction due to increased hormones, docile males can become extremely aggressive and attack humans. In freedom, this is taken for granted and they will not only compete for females, but also for territorial dominance.

The female is vaccinated three weeks before calving to provide high concentrations of antibodies in the colostrum during the first hours of calving.

The lambs will be born in spring, this way they have time to grow up healthy until winter arrives. And the gestation period will last about five months and the delivery will last about three hours. Most will give birth to a single lamb and sometimes twins, although other breeds can give birth to more numbers.

The first steps of a lamb

When a lamb is born in captivity, a breeder after giving birth will take the lambs to small pens where they will be observed. Calving in captivity is not easy and goes through many difficulties, one of the main ones being due to the size of the lambs that has increased with selective breeding and on many occasions the breeder must help the sheep to give birth.

During calving the ewes will break the amniotic sac and lick the lamb to clean it. In just a few hours the lamb will be able to get up and begin to be suckled receiving vital milk for its first days of life. Sometimes they can be rejected by their mothers and need help to survive that will be given by the hatcheries that feed them with bottles or by another sheep that has "adopted" them.

When they are several weeks old, they are marked on the ears with numbers to facilitate later identification and thus keep track of the animal. Lambs not intended for breeding are castrated, although some herders will not do so for ethical or economic reasons. If it is decided to castrate, there is a controversy regarding the timing. Generally, it is done after 24 hours and no more than a week to reduce pain to a minimum, complications and recovery time. If the lamb is male they will be slaughtered or separated from the ewes before sexual maturity they are not usually castrated.

The first vaccinations arrive at 10 - 12 weeks when it is considered that you have already started to develop your immune system.

For the welfare of the animal, their tails are cut off to reduce the risk of fly attacks. This has not been very popular with animal rights groups, but breeders defend themselves arguing that they solve many practical and veterinary problems. They also add that the pain is only temporary.

A little lamb in the field

A little lamb in the field

State of conservation

Sheep is listed as Least Concern due to its status as a domestic meat, milk and wool producer.

Popular culture

Counting sheep is popularly said to help you fall asleep, and some ancient systems for counting sheep still persist to this day.

Sheep have been present in popular culture for millennia. In English, call someone "sheep" referring to being shy and easy to guide. However, images of male sheep are also used as power and virility, for example the Los Angeles Rams football teams and Dodge Ram truck allude to the male bighorn sheep, Ovis canadensis.

The expression "black sheep" is also used, which implies that a person is strange or of doubtful reputation within a group. This is because occasionally a black lamb is born among a white flock. These lambs were rejected by the shepherds since the black wool is not traded as much as the white.

Religion and folklore

Formerly the sheep was very present in religions, both as a sacred animal and as a sacrificial animal. Ram skulls occupied a central place in shrines in the Çatalhöyük settlement in 8.000 BC. In Egyptian religion, the ram was the symbol of the gods Khnum, Heryshaf, and Amun (in its incarnation as a fertility god). Occasionally the goddess Ishtar, the Phoenician god Baal-Hamon, and the Babylonian god Ea-Oannes would also appear. Sheep were not eaten in Madagascar as there was a belief that they were reincarnated relatives.

In ancient Greece there are also several references to sheep, in astrology Aries is the first sign of the zodiac of ancient Greek. It also appears in the Chinese zodiac as the eighth animal. In Mongolia, shagai are ancient dice made from sheep bones, used for fortune telling.

In the Abrahamic religions; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David, and the Islamic prophet Muhammad were all shepherds. Practitioners of Christianity are colloquially called "flock" with Christ as the Good Shepherd and the sheep as an iconographic element of the birth of Jesus. Christ is also represented as the sacrificed Lamb of God (Agnus Dei). Paschal lamb is offered in Greece and Romania.

Sheep were slaughtered in Islamic cultures to commemorate important secular events. Also the Greeks and Romans sacrificed sheep habitually in religious practice. And Judaism once sacrificed sheep as a Korban (sacrifice), just like the Passover lamb.

Culture

It is present in the form of nursery rhymes and fables such as "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing", novels such as George Orwell's "Animal Farm", the Bach song "Sheep Graze in Peace" and poems such as " The Lamb »by William Blake.

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