Fine wool ewes (Rambouillet)
Long wooled rams
(Romney and Lincoln)
Medium wool rams (Texel)
Hair sheep (Pelibüey)
Fat-rumped rams (Turki)
Photo courtesy of Fardeen Omidwar
(Old Norwegian Sheep)
Photo courtesy of Hilde Buer
- Sheep breeds
There are more breeds of sheep than breeds of any other livestock
species. Worldwide, there are more than one thousand distinct
sheep breeds. There are more than 40 breeds in the United States.
Sheep come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors.
Breeds are usually classified according to their primary purpose
(meat, milk, or wool), the type of fibers they grow (fine, medium,
long or carpet wool; or hair), the color of their faces (black,
white, red, or moddled), and/or by specific physical or production
- Fine wool sheep
Fine wool sheep produce wool fibers with a very small fiber
diameter, usually 20 microns or less. Sheep bred for their fine
wool account for more than 50 percent of the world's sheep population.
Found throughout Australia,, South Africa, South America, and
the Western United States, most sheep of this type belong to the
Merino breed or its derivatives.
The Rambouillet, related to the Merino, is the most common breed
of sheep in the U.S., especially the western states where the
majority of sheep in the U.S. can still be found. Fine wool sheep
are best adapted to arid and semi-arid regions. They are known
for the strong flocking instinct.
- Long wool sheep
Long wool sheep produce long stapled wool with a large fiber
diameter, usually greater than 30 microns. Long wool sheep are
best adapted to cool, high rainfall areas with abundant forage.
They are commonly raised in England, Scotland, New Zealand, and
the Falkland Islands. In the U.S., the fleeces from the long wool
breeds are popular among handspinners.
- Medium wool meat sheep
Meat or "mutton-type" sheep produce wool, mostly
medium or long, but are raised more for their meat qualities.
Medium wool sheep account for about 15 percent of the world's
sheep population. The most popular meat breeds in the U.S. are
Suffolk, Dorset, and Hampshire.
- Carpet wool sheep
The coarest, lowest grade wool (usually over 38 microns) is used
in the manufacture of carpets. Carpet wool breeds are usually
double-coated, with a coarse long outer coat for protection against
the elements. They are generally adapted to extreme environments.
Carpet wool breeds found in the U.S. include Icelandic, Karakul,
Navajo Churro, and Scottish Blackface.
- Hair Sheep
Some breeds lack wool and are covered with hair instead, like
their wild ancestors. Some hair sheep have pure hair coats, whereas
others have coats that contain a mixture of hair and wool fibers
that shed naturally. Hair sheep are found mostly in Africa and
the Caribbean, but are also raised in temperate climates, such
as the U.S. and Canada.
Hair sheep account for about 10 percent of the world's sheep population
and are fastest growing segment of the American sheep industry.
Interest in hair sheep genetics is also developing in Australia,
Europe, and the United Kingdom.
- Fat-tailed sheep
Fat tailed or fat-rumped sheep are so-named because they can
store large amounts of fat in the tail and region of the rump.
Fat-tailed sheep are found mostly in the extrremely arid regions
of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. They often produce wool,
but are raised primarily for meat or milk production. Fat-tailed
sheep comprise 25 percent of the world's sheep population. Several
U.S. breeds have fat-tailed ancestry: Karakul, Tunis, and Dorper.
- Short or rat-tailed breeds
Short or rat-tailed breeds originate primarily from Scandinavia
and Northern Europe. Their tails are thin and free of wool and
do not need docked. These breeds tend to be very prolific. Examples
of these breeds include Finn Sheep, Romanov, East Friesian, Shetland,
Icelandic, and Soay.
- Primitive breeds
Primitive breeds have developed with minimal human selection
pressure. They typically possess lots of genetic variation between
members, but share characteristics indicative of a breed. A primitive
breed will typically retain survival characteristics that favor
production with minimal human inputs.
Consistency among the products produced by the breed is somewhat
lacking, but they are an important source of genetic variation
that may not exist anywhere else. Many primitive breeds live in
isolated mountain regions or on islands. Like some species of
wildlife, many are endangered. Fortunately conservation efforts
are underway to preserve these important genetic resources.