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Sheep originated from wild sheep which include the Mouflon
(Europe and Western Asia), the Urial (Asia), the Argali (Asia) and the
Bighorn (Asia and North America). Domestic sheep originated from the
Mouflon, Urial and Argali. Two wild mouflon populations
still exist: the Asiatic mouflon ( living in the mountains of Asia
Minor and southern Iran) and the European mouflon (living on the
islands of Sardinia and Corsica).
Sheep were domesticated by humans around 10,000 BC. They were
among the first animals domesticated. As sheep were
raised under tamed conditions, they went through several changes. They
began to develop more wool and less hair. The color of the wool and
hair changed from brown and shades to whites and black. Their ears
became more of a lop ear than an erect ear. The horns that the wild
sheep possessed were weakened and disappeared from many breeds. The
tails of wild sheep had less vertebrates or bones than the sheep do
now. And today's sheep has a smaller brain.
Selection for economically important traits like wool type, has
resulted in more than 200 distinct breeds of sheep. Some breeds only
have hair, some wool and some both.
Female sheep are called ewes, baby sheep are called lambs, and
male sheep are called rams. A group of sheep is called a flock.
Sheep are precocial, gregarious animals. Precocial means that they have a high
degree of independence at birth. Gregarious means that they flock
together or like to be with a group. Sheep are social animals, but the
most important reason they like to flock together is for protection.
Some breeds of sheep are more gregarious than others and there are
also some solitary breeds.
Sheep are timid, nervous and easily frightened animals and for
the most part defenseless against predators like coyotes and wild dogs.
Their only means of survival is to flock together in large numbers and
to run away from predators. For this reason, shepherds are able to use
dogs to move sheep around. Sheep will consider the dog as a predator,
flock together for protection and move away from the danger.
Sheep have a flight zone, which is the space they like to keep
between themselves and others. The flight distance depends on the
situation and on the tameness or wildness of the sheep.
Sheep don't like to walk in water or move through narrow openings.
They prefer to move into the wind and uphill than down wind and
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Sheep usually give birth once a year and have 1-3 lambs. They
normally live to be about 8 years old, but can sometimes live to be as
old as 20. Pregnancy lasts for 147 days.
Lambs form strong bonds with their mothers. They can identify
their mother by her bleat.
Lambs have 8 temporary incisors that erupt at approximately 2
months of age. They will be replaced by larger and wider permanent
incisors between 12 months and 4 years of age. At this point they will
have all their teeth. Sheep don't have top front teeth.
Sheep are ruminants. They have a four-chambered stomach, using
the first chamber to store quickly ingested food (cud) which they then bring back into
their mouths to chew again before fully digesting it. Sheep
spend about a third of their life ruminating and need peace and quiet.
Sheep are very selective in their grazing habits. Sheep have a
split in their upper lip, with this they are able to pick the
preferred leaves off the plant.
Sheep rank in intelligence just below the pig and even with
cattle. They react to situations they encounter using instincts that
have developed over centuries.
Sheep see in color. The average sheep has a field of vision of
270 degrees. The visual field can be affected by the amount of wool on
the face. They have a poor depth perception. For this reason, sheep
will avoid shadows or harsh contrasts between light and dark. They
will move towards the light.
Sheep have an excellent sense of hearing. They are more
sensitive to high frequency noise than people and get scared by loud
When sheep are on their back they will need to be helped, because
they can't get up from that position.
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