Young Rambouillet ewes
Fine wool ewes (Rambouillet)

 Long wooled rams
Long wooled rams
(Romney and Lincoln)

 Wide bodies
Medium wool ewes (Texel)

 Pretty PelibŁey ewe
Hair sheep (Pelibüey)

Fat-rumped sheep from Afghanistan
Fat-rumped rams (Turki)
Photo courtesy of Fardeen Omidwar

Old Norwegian sheep
Primitive breed
(Old Norwegian Sheep
Photo courtesy of Hilde Buer

    Counting sheep

    Sheep breeds
    It is difficult to know how many breeds of sheep there are in the world, as only developed countries usually maintain breed registries. However, it is believed that there are more breeds of sheep than breeds of any other livestock species, with the exception of poultry. Worldwide, it is estimated that there are more than 1000 distinct sheep breeds. There are more than 60 breeds in the United States alone.

    Sheep come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors, and there are many ways to classify sheep: according to their primary purpose (meat, milk, or wool), the type of coat they have or 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 characteristics.

    Fine wool sheep
    Fine wool sheep produce wool fibers with a very small fiber diameter, usually 20 microns or less. A micron is one-millionth of a meter. Fine wool sheep 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 are Merino or trace their ancestry to the Merino.

    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. Besides being known for their high quality fine wool, they are known for their longevity and 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 niche marketers and hand spinners. Popular long wool breeds include Border Leicester, Coopworth, Cotswold, Leicester Longwool, Lincoln, and Romney.

    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 Cheviot, Dorset, Hampshire, Shropshire, Southdown, and Suffolk.

    Carpet wool sheep
    The coarsest grade of wool (usually over 38 microns) is used in the manufacture of carpets; hence, the name. Carpet wool breeds are usually double-coated, with a coarse long outer coat for protection against the elements and a short, finer undecoat. 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 the fastest growing segment of the American sheep industry. In fact, the Katahdin, an American breed of hair sheep, now leads all US sheep breeds in registration numbers and transfers. Interest in hair sheep is also developing in other countries, including Australia and Mexico.

    Fat-tailed sheep
    Fat tailed or fat-rumped sheep are so-named because they can store large amounts of fat in their tail and rump. Fat-tailed sheep are found mostly in the extreme environments in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. They grow wool, but are raised primarily for their meat or milk. Fat-tailed sheep comprise 25 percent of the world's sheep population. The only fat-tailed sheep in the U.S. is the Karakul. The fat-tail was bred out of the Tunis. The Awassi, a fat-tail sheep from the Middle East was recently introduced to the U.S. via semen and embryos.

    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. They tend to be prolific. Examples of these breeds include Finn Sheep, Romanov, East Friesian, Shetland, Icelandic, and Soay.

    Prolific breeds
    Some sheep breeds are known for their prolificacy or high birth rates. Some were found to be naturally prolific, whereas selection has resulted in the high prolificacy of others. The first prolific breed identified was the Finnish Landrace (Finn). The Romanov was the next breed identified as being highly fertile. The Booroola Merino is the most recently discovered prolific breed. However, it differs from the Finn and Romanov, in that its prolificacy is due to a single gene. The prolificacy of the Chinese Hu breed is also believed to be the result of a single gene. In prolific breeds, litter size usually exceeds 2.5 lambs per birth.

    Primitive breeds
    Primitive breeds have developed with minimal human selection pressure. They typically possess considerable genetic variation between members, but share characteristics indicative of a breed. A primitive breed will typically retain survival characteristics that favor production (and survival) 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. Some producers niche market the meat from primitive breeds.


Last updated 19-Apr-2021
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