Scottish Blackface ram
Scottish Blackface ram

Young Rambouillet ewes - close-up
Horned and polled Rambouillet ewes

Four-horned Jacob ram
Four-horned Jacob ram

    Beauty adorns the ram with horns

    Horned vs. Polled
    While originally all rams had horns, sheep can have horns or not, depending upon their breed, sex, and genetics. In some sheep breeds, both sexes are horned. In some breeds, only the rams have horns. Some sheep breeds have both a horned and polled strain.

    When neither sex is horned, the breed is said to be polled or naturally hornless. Partial or undeveloped horns are called scurs. While horns are sometimes removed from cows or goats for safety and management ease, horns are seldom removed from sheep unless they pose a danger to the animal.

    Beautiful horns
    A sheep's horns are hollow, consisting of a keratinous sheath overlying a bony core that is attached to the skull. Horns will grow through a sheep's lifetime, with the most rapid growth occuring during the first two to three years of life.

    The living horn of a sheep has blood flowing through it. If it is broken or cut off, it will bleed. When the sheep dies, the horn's interior will dry up and become hollow.

    Sheep horns tend to curl and spiral, whereas goat horns grow straight out or up. Some rams have such beautiful horns that they are raised as "trophy" animals. Horns can be made into knife handles, hair combs, powder horns, and horse bits.

    The genetics of horns
    Horn presence is controlled by three genes. One gene (P) is dominant for the polled condition. One gene (p) is sex-linked for non-polled. The third gene (p') produces horns in both ewes and rams. There is a 25 percent chance you'll get horned offspring from two polled parents, if each parent is heterozygous for horns (Pp).

    At the same time, the male sex hormone plays an important role in horn development, as rams usually have larger, more striking horns than ewes and in breeds in which only the male is horned, wethers will be hornless like ewes.

    Rare genetics allow some sheep to have multiple horns. The breed best known for having four horns is the Jacob. Other breeds in which some individuals have multiple horns include the Icelandic and Navajo Churro.

    Polled sheep
    Horns are useful to wild sheep, but don't have much of a purpose in commercial sheep production systems. Horns can make handling sheep, especially rams more difficult and dangerous, and more time-consuming. Horned animals can get their heads stuck in fences, feeders, and equipment. Horned animals can be destructive to equipment and dangerous to each other. As a result, selection has been for polled animals over the years.

    You'll find horned sheep in mostly non-commercial hobby flocks.


Last updated 19-Apr-2021
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