One of the first farmed animals, sheep have been reared for thousands of years for meat and milk.
There are more than 1 billion sheep worldwide. The greatest numbers are farmed in Asia and Africa. Sheep are raised for meat (lamb and mutton) and for milk.
Sheep are prey animals and are largely defenseless against predators, naturally nervous, and easily frightened. They flock together for safety. Sheep have a “flight zone”—the distance they keep from a potential threat such as a person or sheepdog—which varies depending how wild the sheep are.
Lambs are very independent at birth and form strong bonds with their mothers, recognizing each other by their “bleats” (vocalizations).
Sheep are surprisingly intelligent. They are able to recognize and remember approximately 50 sheep faces and those of familiar humans.
Where do sheep come from?
Domesticated sheep originate from wild sheep. They were one of the first domesticated animals, farmed since about 9,000 BC. Over the years of domestication, sheep have been bred to have more wool and have developed into black, white, and spotted varieties.
Sheep farming today
Most sheep are farmed outdoors, with less than one percent kept in intensive systems (although this is still more than 10 million animals). Some sheep may be housed over winter, but otherwise housing is generally reserved for lambing, fattening of some lambs, and for milking sheep.
Although the majority of sheep are not intensively farmed, there are still significant concerns for sheep and lamb welfare.