Patch sheep at Farm Sanctuary
The Species

Sheep

Patch sheep at Farm Sanctuary

Social, Emotional Sheep

Mason sheep at Farm Sanctuary

If ever in need of a moment of peacefulness and grounding, members of the Farm Sanctuary team and visitors alike have retreated to the sheep barn to spend time among the Sanctuary’s most mild-mannered, tender residents.

Sharing a common ancestor with goats roughly 4 million years ago, domestic sheep (Ovis aries) distinguished themselves genetically from their ruminant cousins by synthesizing keratin—the protein in wool, hair, and hooves—in a slightly different way. When humans began herding, this distinction made sheep’s fibers more useful, while their relatively trusting nature made the animals easier to tend. Now commonly kept in commercial flocks numbering in the thousands, modern sheep endure some of industrial agriculture’s most brutal treatments so that “farm” owners can maximize production efficiencies.

A Cambridge University study found that sheep—like humans and some primates—could pick up emotional cues in humans and in other sheep. Not surprisingly, they preferred smiling and relaxed expressions over angry or distressed ones. Visitors to our farms have experienced this phenomenon firsthand, as the sheep will commonly flock around human guests who display openness and warmth, and return those emotions in kind.

A Brief History of Sheep

10 million years ago

Branching Out on the Mammal Tree

The Miocene epoch, 18 million years of terrestrial cooling marked by rapid diversification of plant and mammal species, gave rise to the ancestor common to today’s sheep, goats, and muskox. Taxonomically, domestic sheep are part of this caprinae or “goat-antelope” subfamily of ruminant mammals that also includes Rocky Mountain goats and Asian serows. With short horns and beards, today’s serows are believed to closely resemble that common ancestor.

11,000 BCE to 8,000 BCE

Blurring the Line Between Wild and Kept

While recent research suggests ancestry that includes more than one subspecies, biologists tend to cite the mouflon, still found in southern Asia, as the natural forerunner most likely to have become the domestic sheep. Relatively docile behavior around humans combined with Ice Age contractions of livable terrain may have helped. Modern observers have noted that even wild bighorn sheep quickly become accustomed to peaceable human presence.

7,000 BCE to 100 CE

Humans Move Sheep Across the Known World

Rock art and bones strongly support the presence of domesticated sheep in ancient Egypt (7,000 BCE) and southern France (6,000 BCE), and the tending of flocks in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle East is well documented. The prominent presence of sheep and shepherds in Judaic, Islamic, and Sumerian scriptural documents suggests that their importance to those cultures was well established.

1492

Merino Wool Bankrolls New World Ventures

The Spanish Moors of the Middle Ages are often credited with breeding the fine, crimping fibers of Merino sheep, today’s most populous breed. Trade in Merino wool grew so lucrative that Spain’s Mesta guild of sheep traders outlawed its export for four centuries. By the 1400s, the greatest fortunes in Spain had been built on trade of Merinos and their fiber—those fortunes financed many New World voyages, including those of Christopher Columbus.

1500s

Navajo Adoption of Spanish Churros

Brought by the Spanish, the Churro sheep and its glossy fleece were woven into Navajo culture for 350 years until the 1860s, when America’s westward spread forced the relocation of the tribe and its flocks. By the end of the 1930s, the Churro was believed to have been purged in advance of construction of the Hoover Dam. But discovery of remnant Churros in the early 1970s brought restoration via the Navajo Sheep Project.

1744

Nursery Rhymes - Baa Baa, Little Lambs

Composed as commentary on King Edward I’s wool taxation policy that had taken effect 400 years prior, the earliest written version of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” dates to 1744. Nearly a century later, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was published in a poetry collection, purportedly based on the author’s experience as a school teacher; in 1877, Thomas Edison read the poem into his newly invented phonograph machine, making it the contents of history’s first audio recording.

1804

Punch Cards Control the Jacquard Loom

As human populations grew and trade expanded, weavers of sheep’s wool benefited from the evolution of related technology—the spinning wheel, the flying shuttle, the weighted loom. Arriving in 1804, the Jacquard loom used sets of custom punch cards to control its automated action, allowing faster production of complex patterns. Such card systems eventually enabled 19th-century mechanical calculators and, later, IBM’s earliest computers.

1918

Tending the White House Lawn

During World War I, President Wilson’s administration brought a flock of sheep to graze on the lawns surrounding the White House, touting both their idyllic presence and the need to seek creative labor solutions while the nation’s workforce was at war. Seeing an opportunity for charity, the administration auctioned the flock’s fleece—two pounds in each of the 50 states–raising the equivalent of nearly $900,000 for the American Red Cross.

1960s

Worldwide Wool Production Begins to Wane

Between 1961 and 2018, the production of wool worldwide declined roughly 25%—most notably in Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina, which had been the world’s top three producing countries. In the US, wool production declined by more than 67% over that period. Consumer preference has shifted toward less expensive and lower maintenance synthetic and cotton fabrics; and farmers seek more profitable, sustainable uses for arable land.

1996

The Most Famous Sheep in History

Ostensibly seeking avenues to treat genetic diseases, scientists had been cloning animals such as the tadpole (1952) and carp (1963) for decades. But in 1996 near Edinburgh, Scotland, Dolly the Sheep was born as the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell, amplifying worldwide ethical debate about genetically modified livestock, embryonic stem cell treatment, and unnecessary suffering or destruction of non-viable embryos.

2016

A Ghastly Advance in Live Export

The largest ocean-going livestock vessel in history, Ocean Shearer, put to sea with the capacity to carry 75,000 live sheep on voyages as long as 18,000 miles. As evidence of horrific conditions on such ships continues to emerge, some governments have increased oversight, albeit temporarily or superficially. Meanwhile, to maintain profitability the largest sheep exporters continue to expand their operations’ scale and mechanization.

2017

Recognizing Human Faces in Photographs

Because of their relative longevity, brain size, and docility, domestic sheep have long been used and abused for scientific study. A relatively humane study at the University of Cambridge trained eight sheep via reward to distinguish the faces of celebrities from other portraits. The same individuals, shown photos of their human handlers for the first time, would “double-take,” pause, and ultimately choose their handlers’ photos over others’.

2019

Sheared, Sequestered, and Slaughtered

More than 2.4 million sheep were slaughtered for meat in America in 2019, producing over 153 million pounds of “lamb,” most of it from animals killed around 1 year of age. Because this is the norm in the U.S., all meat from sheep is defined as “lamb” for commercial purposes. Also in 2019, 24 million pounds of wool were shorn—an all-time low for the U.S. Cheaper fibers have become more popular, and consumers are learning about the cruelties of wool production.

Japanese serow

Photo: yasuo inoue/shutterstock.com

10 million years ago

Branching Out on the Mammal Tree

The Miocene epoch, 18 million years of terrestrial cooling marked by rapid diversification of plant and mammal species, gave rise to the ancestor common to today’s sheep, goats, and muskox. Taxonomically, domestic sheep are part of this caprinae or “goat-antelope” subfamily of ruminant mammals that also includes Rocky Mountain goats and Asian serows. With short horns and beards, today’s serows are believed to closely resemble that common ancestor.

The Someone Project: Sheep

Cindy sheep at Farm Sanctuary

The Someone Project is a Farm Sanctuary-sponsored research-based initiative documenting farm animal sentience through science. Download our white paper on sheep titled Thinking Sheep: Intelligence, Individuality and Autonomy in Domestic Sheep.

Download
Cindy sheep at Farm Sanctuary

Sheep Facts

  • Gomax sheep at Farm Sanctuary
  • Wild sheep

    learn complex migratory routes through cultural transmission.

  • Female sheep often stay in their group of friends for life.

  • Male sheep support their friends in conflicts and step in to protect weaker members of the group.

  • Sheep herds designate “camping areas” in the hills or mountains where they spend nights.

Sheep walking at Farm Sanctuary
“Sheep are able to experience emotions such as fear, anger, rage, despair, boredom, disgust, and happiness.”
- Dr. Isabelle Veissier et al., Animal Welfare

Suffering for Their Meat, Milk, and Wool

In all three industries, playful, intelligent sheep routinely suffer inhumane treatment throughout their lives and are often slaughtered for human consumption.

  • United States

    2,357,200 sheep were slaughtered in the United States in 2018.

  • Global

    573,781,177 sheep were slaughtered worldwide in 2018.

factory farming

Tightly packed sheep at the sale yards. Australia, 2013

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Two white sheep (lambs) tied to a pole near a stone wall waiting for slaughter

Photo: Go Ro/shutterstock.com

Closeup of a tail docked sheep.

Photo: Sarah Marchant/shutterstock.com

Sheep inside a transport truck parked at the Turkish Border.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Eyes On Animals

Sheep being milked by a machine

Photo: Maurizio Milanesio/shutterstock.com

Sheep.

Photo: elenavolf/shutterstock.com

Sheep being shorn

Photo: Israel Hervas Bengochea/shutterstock.com

Close Up Of A Sheep At A Sale Yard

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Several Windows With Sheep On The Bahijah In Israel

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Israel Against Live Shipments

Sheep Used for Meat, Dairy, and Wool

Largest Farms Grow Millions of Sheep
While most sheep farms do maintain smaller flocks, roughly 40% of U.S. sheep raised for commercial purposes are kept in flocks of 1,000 or more. In 2017, over 100,000 farms reported keeping sheep in the U.S. The 107 farms with the largest flocks–0.1% of all U.S. sheep farms–owned more than 1.1 million sheep, about 20% of the U.S. sheep population and about 10,000 animals per farm on average.

Sheep Used for Meat

US Consumers Prefer Meat from Younger Sheep
Over two million sheep are slaughtered every year in the United States. Because US consumers prefer meat from lambs, more than 90% of these sheep are killed when they are between 6 and 8 months old. Australian industry slaughters roughly four times as many each year, in addition to exporting millions around the world.

Sheep Used for Meat

Tails Cut or Banded to Rot Off
Within a few weeks of birth, most sheep are “tail-docked” to reduce the buildup of fecal matter around their backsides (which attracts flies and disease). Farmers will either cut the tail off or fasten a tight rubber ring around the tail until it rots and falls off. Either method results in lambs exhibiting signs of pain. Tail-docking can also increase incidence of rectal prolapse, prevalent in between 2 and 10 percent of lambs on US farms.

Sheep Used for Meat

Often Slaughtered While Conscious
As the world population increases, demand for sheep meat that has been slaughtered in accordance with religious tenets has also grown. As a result, the number of animals—particularly sheep—that are killed without first being stunned continues to rise. Throat-slashing, so that the animal will die from blood loss, will often occur while these animals are fully conscious.

Sheep Used for Dairy

Confined and Connected to Milking Parlors
Commercial farmers’ emphasis on increased production and ease of operation has led to the development of increasingly automated milking methods. Sheep are often confined to individual stalls within a larger “milking parlor” that secures each ewe within a space slightly larger than her body, while her udder is drained by a vacuum pump and “milking claw.” The associated stresses can make ewes more susceptible to mastitis, a painful swelling of the udder glands that can increase the presence of unwanted bacteria in milk.

Sheep Used for Wool

Cruel Castration
Ranchers sometimes prefer castrated male sheep (called “wethers”) to their unaltered counterparts (called “rams”) for a variety of reasons. While rams grow faster and larger, wethers are easier to manage. Castration is done either with a blade or via “banding”—placing a rubber band around the scrotum and restricting blood flow so that the scrotum and testes wither over the course of many weeks, eventually falling off. Veterinary recommendations for pain relief are seldom followed.

Sheep Used for Wool

Dangers of shearing—for sheep and people
Ranchers will often starve sheep for a full day before shearing to reduce the animals’ reactions to the stresses of shearing. Shearing is high-risk, low-wage work—one Australian labor report suggested that shearers are 6 times more likely to be injured than average workers. Large-scale producers have long sought faster shearing methods. Despite the risks of injury to sheep and shearer, speed contests have long been used to normalize the practice.

Sheep Used for Wool

Cut, Sliced, and Sewn—Without Pain Relief
Sheep often suffer from “flystrike,” an infection caused by maggots and fouled living spaces. To prevent flystrike, ranchers will slice tissue off lambs’ backsides to smooth the skin and deter maggot infestation—a process called “mulesing.” Additionally, after being cut or abraded during shearing, sheep’s wounds are sometimes sewn shut by a needle and thread. Anesthetic for treating these wounds is only a recommendation in Australia, where nearly one quarter of the world’s wool is produced.

Sheep Used for Wool

Aged Sheep Shipped to Die Overseas
As sheep age, their bodies produce less wool. In the wool industry, sheep that do not produce sufficient wool volumes are sent to slaughter. In Australia, the source of most of the world’s wool, such sheep are typically exported by sea to countries where mature sheep meat is commonly consumed, enduring grueling journeys of up to three weeks.

Tightly packed sheep at the sale yards. Australia, 2013

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Sheep Used for Meat, Dairy, and Wool

Largest Farms Grow Millions of Sheep
While most sheep farms do maintain smaller flocks, roughly 40% of U.S. sheep raised for commercial purposes are kept in flocks of 1,000 or more. In 2017, over 100,000 farms reported keeping sheep in the U.S. The 107 farms with the largest flocks–0.1% of all U.S. sheep farms–owned more than 1.1 million sheep, about 20% of the U.S. sheep population and about 10,000 animals per farm on average.

Two white sheep (lambs) tied to a pole near a stone wall waiting for slaughter

Photo: Go Ro/shutterstock.com

Sheep Used for Meat

US Consumers Prefer Meat from Younger Sheep
Over two million sheep are slaughtered every year in the United States. Because US consumers prefer meat from lambs, more than 90% of these sheep are killed when they are between 6 and 8 months old. Australian industry slaughters roughly four times as many each year, in addition to exporting millions around the world.

Closeup of a tail docked sheep.

Photo: Sarah Marchant/shutterstock.com

Sheep Used for Meat

Tails Cut or Banded to Rot Off
Within a few weeks of birth, most sheep are “tail-docked” to reduce the buildup of fecal matter around their backsides (which attracts flies and disease). Farmers will either cut the tail off or fasten a tight rubber ring around the tail until it rots and falls off. Either method results in lambs exhibiting signs of pain. Tail-docking can also increase incidence of rectal prolapse, prevalent in between 2 and 10 percent of lambs on US farms.

Sheep inside a transport truck parked at the Turkish Border.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Eyes On Animals

Sheep Used for Meat

Often Slaughtered While Conscious
As the world population increases, demand for sheep meat that has been slaughtered in accordance with religious tenets has also grown. As a result, the number of animals—particularly sheep—that are killed without first being stunned continues to rise. Throat-slashing, so that the animal will die from blood loss, will often occur while these animals are fully conscious.

Sheep being milked by a machine

Photo: Maurizio Milanesio/shutterstock.com

Sheep Used for Dairy

Confined and Connected to Milking Parlors
Commercial farmers’ emphasis on increased production and ease of operation has led to the development of increasingly automated milking methods. Sheep are often confined to individual stalls within a larger “milking parlor” that secures each ewe within a space slightly larger than her body, while her udder is drained by a vacuum pump and “milking claw.” The associated stresses can make ewes more susceptible to mastitis, a painful swelling of the udder glands that can increase the presence of unwanted bacteria in milk.

Sheep.

Photo: elenavolf/shutterstock.com

Sheep Used for Wool

Cruel Castration
Ranchers sometimes prefer castrated male sheep (called “wethers”) to their unaltered counterparts (called “rams”) for a variety of reasons. While rams grow faster and larger, wethers are easier to manage. Castration is done either with a blade or via “banding”—placing a rubber band around the scrotum and restricting blood flow so that the scrotum and testes wither over the course of many weeks, eventually falling off. Veterinary recommendations for pain relief are seldom followed.

Sheep being shorn

Photo: Israel Hervas Bengochea/shutterstock.com

Sheep Used for Wool

Dangers of shearing—for sheep and people
Ranchers will often starve sheep for a full day before shearing to reduce the animals’ reactions to the stresses of shearing. Shearing is high-risk, low-wage work—one Australian labor report suggested that shearers are 6 times more likely to be injured than average workers. Large-scale producers have long sought faster shearing methods. Despite the risks of injury to sheep and shearer, speed contests have long been used to normalize the practice.

Close Up Of A Sheep At A Sale Yard

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Sheep Used for Wool

Cut, Sliced, and Sewn—Without Pain Relief
Sheep often suffer from “flystrike,” an infection caused by maggots and fouled living spaces. To prevent flystrike, ranchers will slice tissue off lambs’ backsides to smooth the skin and deter maggot infestation—a process called “mulesing.” Additionally, after being cut or abraded during shearing, sheep’s wounds are sometimes sewn shut by a needle and thread. Anesthetic for treating these wounds is only a recommendation in Australia, where nearly one quarter of the world’s wool is produced.

Several Windows With Sheep On The Bahijah In Israel

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Israel Against Live Shipments

Sheep Used for Wool

Aged Sheep Shipped to Die Overseas
As sheep age, their bodies produce less wool. In the wool industry, sheep that do not produce sufficient wool volumes are sent to slaughter. In Australia, the source of most of the world’s wool, such sheep are typically exported by sea to countries where mature sheep meat is commonly consumed, enduring grueling journeys of up to three weeks.

Sheep herd at Farm Sanctuary
“Sheep can perform ‘executive’ cognitive tasks ... that have never been shown previously to exist in any other large animal [other than primates].”
- Professor Jenny Morton et al., Cambridge University

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VIDEO 1:47

Better Together: Amari Sheep and Her Twins

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