The Sheep: Intelligence, Sociability, Habitat, Reproduction and Description
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Clever. Complex. Sociable. All those words we quickly attributed to humans, but wouldn't see extending to sheep, those fluffy white creatures you see roaming the fields 🌾 or serve with mint sauce on your plate .
Instead, we have decreed that sheep (Ovines) are just plain stupid . This view hasn't changed much since the 1700s, when George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America 🦅, said "If freedom of speech is taken away from us, we may be driven, like sheep at the slaughterhouse, in dumbness and silence."
Today, to be "a sheep" is to be someone who mindlessly follows others: "a waste of flesh and brain cells", as the Urban Dictionary puts it. Most people know sheep as woolly farm animals that say "Baa" . But the domestic sheep is only one species of sheep. There are also five (or six, depending on the source) species of wild sheep.
The truth is that sheep are much smarter 💡 than we know (See paragraph “B-” of “10)”).
Sheep are smart and fascinating. They evolved alongside humans, providing them with companionship , food, and clothing . He is also one of the most unfairly stereotyped animals on the planet 🌎. Almost everything we believe about them is wrong:
- Reputation: Sheep are stupid, helpless, harmless creatures that languish on hillsides doing little. They are good for two things: being eaten 🍴 and producing wool.
- The Reality: Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent , with impressive memory and recognition skills. They make friends 🤝, defend themselves in fights and feel sad when their friends are sent to the slaughterhouse. They are also one of the most destructive creatures on the planet.
So read on to find out lots of facts about sheep and how they have played and will continue to play a key role in our communities.
“In my opinion, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. The more helpless the creature, the more it is entitled to the protection of man 👱♀️ against the cruelty of man.” - Gandhi
1) The Sheep in 10 Seconds TOP CHRONO
- COMMON NAME: Sheep
- SCIENTIFIC NAME: Ovis
- DIET: Herbivore 🌱
- HABITAT: Worldwide, it adapts easily
- BASIC GROUP OF ANIMALS: Mammal
- AVERAGE LIFESPAN: 10-14 years on average, up to 20 years
- SIZE: Between 1m and 1.8m long
- WEIGHT: Between 35 and 180 kg
- CONSERVATION STATE: Only the urial (Ovis orientalis) is listed as Vulnerable together with the Argali (Ovis ammon) as Near Threatened.
2) Where do sheep come from?
Sheep are descended from wild sheep . They were one of the first domesticated animals, bred since around 9,000 BC. Over the years of domestication, sheep were bred to have more wool and developed black ⚫, white ⚪ and spotted varieties.
3) The Sheep: Description
A- The Sheep is a Domesticated Ruminant
The sheep (Ovis aries), is one of the first farm animals , raised for thousands of years for meat and milk 🍼. There are over a billion sheep in the world. The greatest number is bred in Asia and Africa. Lambs are very independent at birth and form strong bonds with their mother, recognizing each other by their bleats.
It is a species of domestic ruminant mammal, raised for its meat, milk and wool . The sheep is generally stockier than its relative the goat 🐐 (genus Capra); its horns, when present, are more divergent; it has scent glands on its face and hind legs and male goats lack beards.
Male sheep ♂️ are called rams , females ♀️ ewes , and immature animals lambs . You can also discover all the breeds of sheep .
B- Physical Description of Sheep
Sheep are related to antelopes, cattle 🐮, musk oxen 🐃 and goats. All of these mammals are even-toed ungulates - their hooves are split, or split into two toes. They are also ruminants - their stomachs have multiple chambers to aid digestion. Most sheep have large curly horns made of keratin (the same as fingernails).
According to Susan Schoenian, a sheep and goat specialist at the University of Maryland Center for Research and Education, it is estimated that there are more than 10,000 distinct breeds 😲 of domestic sheep (Ovis aries) in the world, which which makes them variable in size.
Selective breeding has produced sheep with or without horns, wool, and external ears. Their length varies from 100 to 180 cm , and the height at the shoulder from 65 to 127 cm. Adult sheep weigh between 35 and 180 kg . Sheep 🐑 usually have short tails. In all species of wild sheep, the outer coat takes the form of hair, and underneath is a short undercoat of fine wool which has been developed into the fleece of domesticated sheep.
4) What does the sheep eat?
Sheep are herbivores, which means their diet does not include meat. These animals prefer to graze on grass 🍀 or short, thin legumes , but they also consume tall, coarse, or bushy plants and usually eat seeds, grass, and plants. They graze the plants closer to the root than cattle, so care must be taken that sheep do not overgraze in any particular area.
Like all ruminants, they have a multi-chambered stomach which is adapted to ferment cellulose before digestion 😋. To fully digest their food, sheep regurgitate their food into their mouth, chew it again, and swallow it (allowing its four separate stomach compartments to properly digest the grasses and herbs it eats). This regurgitated food is called cud.
Some sheep do n't need a lot of water . The desert bighorn sheep, for example, gets most of its water from eating plants, according to the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.
5) What is the Sheep's Habitat?
Sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated, so they are farmed all over the world . Wild sheep also live all over the world (in the Middle East, Asia, Central Europe and North America) mainly in mountainous areas 🏞. The bighorn sheep lives in the Rocky Mountain region of North America.
Desert sheep live in Death Valley, California, as well as Nevada, Texas, and northern Mexico. They can live on desert mountains 🏜 up to 1,200 meters. Urials can live even higher. They are found in Asia and the Middle East on grassy terrain with elevations up to 6,000 m .
6) Offspring and Reproduction of Sheep
Male sheep fight for the right to mate with females and the strongest is usually the only one allowed to mate. The mating season, called the rut, takes place in the fall 🍁. After mating, female ewes have a gestation period of about five months . They usually give birth to one or two young at a time in the spring.
Baby sheep called lambs can walk a few minutes ⏱ after birth , although they are often dependent on their mothers for the first four to six months of life. They are weaned (when the lambs stop suckling and begin) at around four to six months of age and reach sexual maturity around one and a half to five years, depending on species and sex. For example, the male argali sheep does not become sexually mature until the age of 5 years, while the female becomes sexually mature at the age of 1 or 2 years, according to the ADW ( Animal Diversity Web ).
7) Classification of this Bovidae ( taxonomy )
Sheep are part of the family Bovidae , which includes antelopes, cattle, and goats. Sheep can usually be identified from their similar looking cousins by their horns 🐏. Goats usually have straight horns and sheep have rounded horns. Also, male goats have a beard while male sheep do not.
Here is the taxonomy of sheep , according to ITIS :
- Ovis ammon (argalis) , with nine subspecies
- Ovis aries (domestic sheep, mouflon, red sheep 🍎, wild sheep), with nine subspecies, including urinals
- Ovis canadensis (bighorn sheep), with seven subspecies
- Ovis dalli (Dall's sheep, Fannin's sheep, Stone's sheep), with two subspecies
- Ovis nivicola (snow sheep ⛄), with four subspecies
8) Sheep Species
Some experts, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), consider the wild ancestor of the domestic sheep, the urial , to be a separate species (Ovis orientalis). Others, such as the ADW and the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), classify them as two subspecies of Ovis aries.
The largest species of sheep is the argali sheep (Ovis ammon), according to the ADW. This Central Asian species 🗻 weighs up to 185 kilograms. It measures 90 to 125 centimeters at the shoulder and 120 to 190 cm from head to tail!
Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) of the Rocky Mountains are similar in size. Males are typically 160-180cm 📏 long (from head to tail) and weigh 119-127kg. Females measure about 150 cm and weigh 53 to 91 kg. American rams have massive horns that weigh more than all the bones in their body, about 14 kg.
Dall's sheep (Ovis dalli) lives in Alaska 🏔 and the Yukon. They are the only mountain sheep with thin horns. Males have massive horns that flare and curl, but females have thin horns. Males weigh from 73 to 113 kg and are between 130 and 180 cm long. Females weigh 46 to 50 kg and measure between 132 and 162 cm.
The snow sheep , or Siberian mouflon (Ovis nivicola), lives in eastern Russia 🌍. It is 140 to 160 cm long and 95 to 112 cm at the shoulder and weighs 60 to 120 kg.
9) The Habits of the Sheep
Sheep are basically shy animals that tend to graze in herds 👥 and are almost completely unprotected from predators. They are prey animals, thus largely defenseless against predators, naturally skittish and easily frightened. They gather for safety. Sheep have a "flight zone" - the distance they keep from a potential threat such as a person or a sheepdog - which varies depending on how wild they are.
Rams fight for dominance of their group. Some collide at speeds of up to 32 km/h , according to National Geographic. Dominance is achieved when a male submits. This process can take hours.
10) The Social Behavior of the Sheep
A- The Herd
Sheep are social 🗣️ , but usually only with their own gender. Males have their own herds called bachelor herds. These herds typically contain five to 50 rams at a time. Females live in nursery herds. Nursery herds can range from five to 100 members, including adult females and their young.
In nature, sheep travel for miles in complex family structures very close to each other, on varied landscapes and terrains 🤩. Each herd stays together and cooperates for its protection. During their walk, a sheep periodically ventures ahead of the group to keep watch. A second sheep follows, then signals to the rest of the herd that it is safe to come. Sheep that act as scouts tend to do so throughout their lives .
B- The Sociability and Intelligence of the Sheep
Sheep are intelligent, curious animals with a good memory 🧠. They remember the animals and humans they have encountered, and form lasting friendships with their herd mates.
A 2001 study by Keith Kendrick, who is now at the University of Electronic Science and Technology in China, showed that they can recognize and remember at least 50 individual 👨🦱 faces for over two years. It's longer than for many humans.
Some neuroscientists now believe that the sheep's brain recognizes faces in the same way as a human's 👩🎓 . In one study, a sheep was able to correctly identify a human face on a screen 50 out of 50 times. Those same sheep could also remember the faces of their sheep friends, up to 50, even though they didn't have them. not seen for years.
When observed for long periods of time, sheep appear to form individual friendships , always grazing (grazing grass) with the same companions. Researchers believe that, like humans, sheep think about their friends even when those sheep aren't around. They also become distressed or discouraged 😪 when their favorite companions miss the herd.
11) Sheep on Farms
Most sheep are kept free range in extensive systems , with less than 1% being kept in intensive systems (although this still amounts to several million animals). Some sheep may be housed during the winter 🥶, but otherwise housing is generally reserved for lambing, fattening some lambs and milking ewes.
Although the vast majority of sheep are not intensively raised, there are still serious concerns about the welfare of sheep and lambs.
A- Sheep's Wool
Sheep are selectively bred to produce abnormally high amounts of wool . Without any human intervention and without selective breeding, sheep produce just enough wool to protect themselves from extreme temperatures 🌡. The wool shearing process can be very stressful for sheep and, especially on large farms, it is often traumatic.
It is well known that the combination of strain, pressure and heat from scissors ✂ causes a sharp increase in cortisol levels, the main indicator of fear . Additionally, shearers are usually paid by volume, not by the hour, resulting in quick work without regard to the welfare of the sheep.
Contrary to popular belief, sheep raised for their wool are not allowed to live out the end of their days on pasture 🌄 . After a few years, the wool production decreases and it is no longer considered profitable to take care of these old sheep. Sheep raised for wool are almost always killed for meat.
B- Lamb Meat
Besides the sale of wool, the other main source of income from sheep production is the sale of lambs for meat 🥩 . The term "lamb" refers to the meat of a sheep less than one year old. Meat from sheep over one year old is called mutton. Mutton has a more pronounced flavor and lamb is generally preferred over mutton.
Lambs are slaughtered between the age of 2 and 12 months . Two-month-old lambs are sold as "hot house" lambs and are considered a delicacy by Europeans 🇪🇺.
C- Commercial slaughter
When sheep arrive at commercial slaughterhouses, they are unloaded ⚡, weighed and placed in a chute. Before being slaughtered, each animal is supposed to be rendered unconscious . The objective is to penetrate the brain but not to cut the brainstem. If the brainstem is severed, the heart will stop pumping blood and the animal will not bleed as quickly or as completely as desired.
D- Religious or Ritual Slaughter of Sheep
The two main religions that practice ritual slaughter are Jewish (kosher) and Muslim (halal) . Although the Humane Slaughter Act 🏛 requires that animals be rendered insensible before slaughter, religious or ritual slaughter is exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act.
12) State of Conservation of the Sheep
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 🚨 , most species of sheep are classified as Least Concern and not threatened with extinction .
However, urials (classified here as Ovis orientalis, with eight subspecies), found in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, are classified as vulnerable . Their populations have declined 📉 by at least 30% in 24 years, due to hunting, hybridization and habitat deterioration.
Argali (Ovis ammon), which live throughout Central Asia, are classified as Near Threatened due to a significant decline in their population (but probably at a rate of less than 30% over three generations), due to the poaching 🔫 and competition with livestock.
13) Domestication of the Sheep
Sheep were first domesticated from wild species by at least 9,000 BC , and their remains have been found at many sites of early human habitation in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Central Asia. Domestic sheep are raised for their fleece (wool), for milk and for meat 🍲.
The flesh of mature sheep is called mutton, that of immature animals is called lamb. It is estimated that there were over a billion 🧐 sheep in the world at the start of the 21st century. The main domestic producers are Australia, New Zealand, China, India, the United States, South Africa, Argentina and Turkey. Countries with large areas of grassland are often the main producers.
Domestic sheep are distinguished from their wild parents 🐸 and from each other by conformation, quantity and quality of fleece, color, size, milk production and other characteristics. Most breeds of domesticated sheep produce wool, while a few produce only hair, and wild sheep produce a combination of wool and hair .
Several hundred different sheep breeds have been developed to meet environmental conditions 💨 influenced by latitudes and altitudes and to meet human needs for clothing and food.
Breeds of sheep with fine wool are usually bred for wool production 🧶 only, while breeds with medium or long wool or hair only are usually bred for meat production. However, several crosses have been developed, which make it possible to obtain high quality wool and meat. Of the over 200 breeds of sheep in the world, the majority are of limited interest except in local areas.
14) Other Sheep Facts
- If a sheep rolls over on its back, it can't get up without help 👨🌾 . A fallen sheep is called a "castrated" sheep. They can be distressed and die in a short time if not returned to a normal position. Once back on their feet, they may need to be supported for a few minutes to ensure they are stable. This happens especially to pregnant ewes and short, stocky ewes with full fleece.
- Most of the sheep's milk produced in the world is turned into cheese 🧀 , such as feta, ricotta, pecorino, Romano and Roquefort.
- The most famous sheep 😎 is probably Dolly, the first mammal to be cloned. She was born in Scotland in 1996, gave birth to six lambs, and died in 2003 after developing a lung infection. She was stuffed and exhibited at the Royal Museum of Scotland. (Fun fact: Dolly was named after country singer Dolly Parton).
- Every winter ❄, a sheep's horns get a growth ring . By counting the rings, scientists can determine the age of a male sheep.