Domestic sheep are hooved mammals, or ungulates, with woolly coats. Sheep are ruminants, or ungulates that chew their cud and have an even number of toes. Cud is partially digested food that has been burped back up to the mouth before being passed along to another part of the stomach for further digestion. Domestic sheep are descended from European and Asian wild mouflon. People have raised sheep for about 10,000 years. More than 1,000 different breeds exist today.
What They Eat
Sheep are grazers, eating grasses, weeds, herbs and shrubs. On farms, they also eat corn, oats, barley and wheat. Sheep are able to survive with minimal water supplies, but must have salt in their diet.
Where They Live
Sheep live on all continents except Antarctica. The greatest numbers of sheep are found in Australia, New Zealand, South and Central America, and the United Kingdom. Different breeds are adapted to different habitats. Shetland sheep, for example, are a hardy breed, well-suited to the cold, wet, rugged Shetland Islands of northeastern Scotland.
What They Do
Sheep are social animals that live in groups called flocks. Flocks tend to move together, either led by a dominant sheep, a shepherd, or herd dog. This grouping behavior makes it easy for one person to take care of an entire flock. The safety provided by the flock allows a sheep to spend most of its day grazing, chewing its cud, or resting.
How They’re Doing
Domestic sheep are prized for their meat, fleece and milk. Sheep are not in danger of extinction. However, some breeds, such as the Hog Island Sheep, are rare. The Shetland sheep at the Wells Fargo Family Farm was previously a critically rare breed, but numbers are now increasing.
A small flock of domestic sheep lives at the Goat and Sheep Barn at the Wells Fargo Family Farm. When the Farm is open, guests can pet and feed the sheep and lambs.
Meet the Animals
The Zoo’s flock consists entirely of Shetland sheep. This breed is mainly farmed for wool, and occasionally for meat. The breed originated in the Shetland Islands of northeastern Scotland and their high-quality wool is the finest of any British breed. Today, they can also be found on a small number of farms outside of Europe. Rams have spiral horns, while ewes have no horns at all. Small and slow-growing compared to other sheep breeds, Shetland sheep are calm, long-lived and easily give birth to lambs.
Home on the Farm
The Goat & Sheep Barn is a red-walled, green-roofed building with a fenced area for sheep to enjoy the fresh air outdoors. Inside the barn, there is a lambing pen for ewes and a kidding pen for female goats. There is also a ram pen for male sheep and a billy pen for male goats.
Care at the Zoo
The Goat and Sheep Barn has both an indoor stall and a fenced outdoor area for the sheep. Inside the Barn, there is a lambing pen for ewes and a kidding pen for female goats. There is also a ram pen for male sheep and a billy pen for male goats.
Sheep usually breed from early fall to midwinter. Lambing, or giving birth, most often occurs in spring. Gestation (pregnancy) lasts about 148 days, or nearly 5 months. Single and twin births are common, with triplets and quadruplets being born only occasionally. The lambing pen is a warm, safe place for a ewe to give birth and care for her newborn babies. Newborns are extremely strong and can stand and drink the mother’s milk within a few minutes of birth. Lambs are weaned when they are 2-3 months old. Nearly all males and some female sheep born at the Minnesota Zoo are sold in the fall after weaning.
Sheep are shorn (or sheared) in the spring. Shetland sheep have a double coat with two types of wool, so they are sheared a little later in the spring than some other sheep breeds. A shearer or Zoo staff do the annual shearing. The sheared fleece should be in once piece and be in the shape of the animal when laid out. If the wool is not needed at the Zoo for classes or other purposes, the shearer will take the wool for processing.
Staff at the Wells Fargo Family Farm oversee sheep feeding, nutrition and housekeeping; they work closely with Minnesota Zoo veterinarians to address any medical problems. Farm staff clean the sheep pens daily and line them with fresh bedding. When the weather allows, the pens are scrubbed. Just like other animals at the Minnesota Zoo, the sheep receive enrichment toys and treats that allow staff to train them.
- Sheep belong to the family Bovidae. Other bovids at the Wells Fargo Family Farm include cows and goats. Takin and American bison can be found along the Minnesota Zoo’s Northern Trail.
- Sheep only have four incisors in the front of their bottom jaw and grinding teeth in the back. The top jaw lacks teeth in the front and instead has a firm dental pad.
- What’s the difference between lamb and mutton? Only the age of the animal producing the meat. Lamb comes from younger animals, while mutton is from older sheep.
- Sheep instinctively “follow the leader.” They are social animals that live in flocks. Sheep in a flock will follow the lead of a dominant animal.
- Like dogs, sheep pant when they are hot. Although goats are closely related to sheep, they lack the ability to cool down by panting.
- Shetland sheepdogs originated in the same place as Shetland sheep, on the Shetland Islands of Scotland.
- The wool on a sheep is constantly growing. Sheep are usually sheared (or shorn) in spring to remove the previous year’s wool growth before the summer heat sets in. The wool is usually removed in one large piece called a fleece. A single fleece weights 2-30 pounds, depending on the breed and size of sheep.
- One pound of sheep’s wool can produce as much as 10 miles of yarn!
- The fleece of Shetland sheep has the widest range of color and marking combinations of any breed. There are 11 recognized colors and 30 recognized markings. With so many colors and markings to choose from, Shetland wool is often kept undyed allowing it to retain its strength and softness.
- Ring shawls are shawls made from the finest Shetland wool—so fine that the woven shawl can pass through a ring. These beautiful shawls would traditionally be worn at a wedding.