The Home Stores
  • Welcome to Sheep 101. The purpose of Sheep 101 is to teach 4-H and FFA members, students, teachers, beginning shepherds, and the general public about sheep, their products, how they are raised, and their contributions to society. The site uses simple language and pictures to illustrate the various topics. To begin learning about sheep, click on a link in the menu bar or choose a topic from the drop down menu above.

  • About the author. The author of Sheep 101 is Susan Schoenian, Sheep & Goat Specialist at the University of Maryland's Western Maryland Research & Education Center. Susan has been with University of Maryland Extension since 1988. She raises Katahdin sheep on her small farm, called The Baalands, in Clear Spring, Maryland. Susan has B.S. and M.S. degrees in Animal Science degrees from Virginia Tech and Montana State University, respectively.

  • Susan Schoenian
    Sheep & Goat Specialist
    W. MD Research & Education Center
    University of Maryland Extension - (301) 432-2767 x343

Katahdin lambs
Katahdin lambs

Docked market lambs
Docked lambs

Rahmani sheep
Rahmani sheep


Two shakes of a lamb's tail

  • Natural
    Tails are a natural part of sheep. Almost all lambs are born with tails. The length of a lamb's tail is half-way between the length of its mother's tail and its father's tail. In fact, tail length is a highly heritable trait. Eighty-four percent of the differences in sheep tail length are due to genetics.

  • Purpose
    The purpose of the sheep's tail is to protect the anus, vulva, and udder from weather extermes. Sheep lift their tails when they defecate and use their tails, to some extent, to scatter their feces.

  • Docking
    Under modern sheep production systems, tails are usually docked (shortened) to prevent fecal matter from accumulating on the back side of the sheep, which can result in fly strike (wool maggots). Tail docking also makes it easier to shear the sheep. The tail does not interfere with breeding or lambing.

    There are different methods that can be used to dock the tails of lambs. The most common method is to put a rubber band around the tail. It is recommended that lambs be docked at a young age (1 to 7 days) to minimize the stress and pain experienced by the lamb. The dock (tail) should be left long enough to cover the ewe's vulva and ram's anus.

  • Hair sheep
    It is usually not necessary to dock the tails of most hair sheep breeds, including Katahdin, Barbado, Barbados Blackbelly, Damara, St. Croix (Virgin Island White), Wiltshire Horn, Pelibüey, Santa Inês, or Royal White®.

  • Rat-tailed sheep
    Some wooled breeds have naturally short tails or thin, woolless tails that do not require docking. These breeds are called Northern European short-tailed or "rat-tailed" sheep. They include Finn Sheep, East Friesian, Shetland, Icelandic, Romanov, and Soay.

  • Fat-tailed sheep
    Some sheep have fat or broad rumps and/or tails. In fact, these comprise 25 percent of the world's sheep population. It is not customary to dock their tails. In fact, the fat tail is considered a delicacy in some cultures. Sheep-tail fat is called "allyah" in Arabic. Historical relgious text (Hadith) claims that sheep-tail fat is a "cure" for sciatica (lower back and leg pain caused by irritation of the scaitic nerve).

  • Naturally-docked sheep
    Using the short-tail breeds as a basis, scientists in Australia and New Zealand are trying to breed sheep with naturally short tails that do not require docking and make the sheep less prone to fly strike. Years ago, researchers in the U.S. tried to breed "tail-less" sheep. The tail-less trait was linked to a lethal gene, similar to the situation with Manx cats.