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All About Sheep: Fun Facts and More!

All About Sheep Facts and More

By: FUN Monster

Sheep are domesticated animals that are raised for their milk, meat, and wool. Sheep are one of the earliest animals to be domesticated and are estimated to have been domesticated as early as 5000 B.C.E. Today, more than one billion domestic sheep are being raised all over the world. Unlike most other livestock, sheep do not require special housing, and they also don't need much land on which to graze. Also, the wool that comes from sheep has a number of unique qualities that make it different from other fibers. Throughout history, the special qualities of sheep and their wool have made sheep central to farming, civilization, and culture. Wool can be used to make lots of useful things as well as gifts.

Sheep Have a Special Way of Eating

Sheep belong to a species of mammals called ruminants. A ruminant is a hoofed, plant-eating mammal that ferments the plants it eats in a special stomach before digestion. It is sometimes said that sheep have four stomachs, but it is more accurate to say that sheep, like other ruminants, have one stomach with four chambers. These chambers are the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum, and the abomasum. Fermentation takes place in the rumen. Only the abomasum is like a human stomach, which is why the abomasum is sometimes called the sheep's "true stomach." When sheep graze, the grass and weeds they eat are first chewed into a ball-like mass of plants and saliva. This mass is called a bolus, from the Latin word for "ball." Sometimes, after it's swallowed, the bolus is regurgitated from the sheep's stomach back to its mouth to be chewed again. This regurgitated bolus is called cud. Sheep appear to chew their cud slowly and deliberately. That's why when a human is thinking about something slowly and carefully, they are sometimes said to be "chewing their cud."

Different Sheep Breeds Make Different Kinds of Wool

There are hundreds of distinct breeds of sheep. Though estimates vary, most agree that there are at least 200 different breeds of sheep worldwide. A breed is a group of animals within a species that shares the same physical and behavioral characteristics. The type of wool a sheep produces is one of the characteristics used to categorize sheep into different breeds. Unlike hair or fur, sheep's wool is elastic and crimped. The natural wave in wool fibers helps the individual fibers stick together, making it easier to spin wool into yarn. Fibers with many crimps per inch make finer wool, while fibers with fewer crimps per inch make coarser wool. The amount of crimp in a sheep's wool varies considerably from breed to breed; there is sometimes even variation within the same flock. Just as sheep are grouped into breeds by the type of wool they produce, the wool they produce is grouped by type and quality before being sold. The grouping of wool is the job of a special professional called a wool classer, and crimp is one of several factors used in wool classing.

Sheep's Wool Is the Most Widely Used Animal Fiber in the World

In 2021, sheep produced around 2.2 million pounds of raw wool, from which blankets, upholstery, costumes, carpeting, insulation, and other textiles were made. Wool has a number of qualities that distinguish it from other fibers and make it especially well-suited for certain purposes. For instance, single wool fibers can be stretched by as much as 30 percent without breaking and then return to their original length. This quality helps wool clothing keep its shape and resist wrinkling. Wool catches fire at a high temperature and has a low rate of flame spread, so wool carpets are used in aircraft and on trains to improve safety. Wool is also often used in the special clothing of firefighters and police officers. And wool is a good insulator, resists odor, and repels water, making it perfect for sportswear; wool is the most popular material used in hiking socks!

More broadly, wool is associated with warmth and comfort, and gifts made of wool symbolize these qualities. For example, gifts made of wool are given on the seventh wedding anniversary to celebrate the coziness of a happy marriage. Popular wool gifts such as sweaters, scarves, socks, slippers, and decorative throws often arrive as birthday gifts and holiday presents. A noteworthy example of a wool gift is the Navajo blanket. The Navajo blanket, which has been woven from sheep's wool since the 17th century, is an important symbol of the Navajo people and Navajo culture. Wool Navajo blankets are celebrated gifts given to show honor and respect.

More Fun Facts About Sheep and Their Wool

  • While there are seven species of sheep, including both wild and domestic animals, the word "sheep" is most commonly used only to mean domesticated sheep.
  • Modern domestic sheep are thought to be descended from wild European and Asian mouflons.
  • An adult female sheep is called a ewe. An adult male sheep is called a ram. Young sheep are called lambs. And a group of sheep is called a flock.
  • A person who tends and herds sheep is called a sheepherder or a shepherd. A farmer who raises sheep is typically known as a sheep producer or sometimes as a sheep rancher. There are more than 100,000 sheep producers in the United States.
  • Flocks of sheep instinctively keep to a small local area throughout their lives. Lambs learn this instinct, called hefting, from their mothers. Hefting makes it possible for sheep to be pastured without fences.
  • Most breeds of sheep grow wool or a combination of wool and hair, but some breeds of sheep do not grow wool at all, just hair. Unlike wool, hair has no crimp and cannot be spun into yarn.
  • Unlike wild sheep, which are typically brown, domestic sheep come in a range of hues, from white to dark brown. Domestic sheep may even be spotted.
  • Sheep have excellent peripheral vision, and many breeds are able to see behind themselves without turning their heads. Some breeds, however, have very wooly faces, and this reduces their peripheral vision. This condition is called wool blindness.
  • Sheep have an excellent sense of smell. They have scent glands in their face and in their hind feet, between their toes.
  • Sheep can recognize and remember individual human faces and the faces of up to 50 different sheep.
  • Sheep vocalizations include grunts, rumbles, snorts, and bleats. Bleating is the "baa" sound typically associated with sheep. Individual sheep have unique bleats, and this allows a ewe and her lambs to recognize each other by sound.
  • Ewes typically give birth to just one lamb, though they sometimes give birth to twins.
  • Flocks of sheep are sometimes hired as mowing services, eating unwanted plants including invasive species and plants that may be a fire hazard.
  • Sheep's wool is good for the environment. Wool garments need to be washed less often and at lower temperatures and are typically hung to dry. This reduces water and energy consumption. Also, as a natural fiber, wool is completely biodegradable.
  • China is the world's largest producer of wool, producing 356,216 tons of wool in 2021. The second-largest wool producer is Turkey, which produced 85,916 tons of wool in 2021. The United States produced 10,184 tons of wool in that year.
  • A number of expressions are inspired by sheep and wool. For example, when you're having trouble going to sleep, someone might tell you to count sheep. Daydreaming is sometimes called wool-gathering. And to pull the wool over someone's eyes is to trick or deceive them.

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