Skip to content

   

25 Surprising Facts About Sheep

Did you know that wool played a role in the discovery of America, that sheep can recognize human faces and that sheep farm numbers have been declining for decades? How well do you know your sheep?

Sheep Facts

Counting Sheep  


Approximate number of
sheep in Montana


1975: 
2003: 
2011: 
475,000
300,000
210,000
Approximate number of
sheep in the United States

1800: 
1945: 
2003: 
2011: 

56 
6.7 
5.5 
million
million
million
million


Approximate number of sheep in the world

2011: More than 1 billion

Flying Sheep

Flying Sheep  

Despite declining domestic sheep production, the United States still imported 40.5 percent of its lamb and mutton in 2002. Most of the 162 million pounds of imported meat came from Australia and New Zealand, the two largest lamb and mutton exporters in the world.

Where the Sheep Are  

Texas, Wyoming and California are the U.S. states with the highest number of sheep. More than two thirds of U.S. sheep are in the Southern Plains, Mountain and Pacific regions.

Sheep Products  

The four main products from sheep are lamb (meat from sheep younger than 14 months), mutton (meat from sheep older than 14 months), wool and sheep's milk.

Lamb Chop  

Americans, it turns out, don't particularly like lamb meat. In 2007, the average American ate:

86.5 pounds of chicken
65 pounds of beef
50.5 pounds of pork
17.3 pounds of turkey
 
1.1 pounds of lamb
Weighing Sheep

The Many Uses of Sheep  

Bits of sheep can also be found in tennis rackets (strings made of sheep guts), candles and soap (tallow rendered from sheep fat) and most cosmetics and skincare products (lanolin, an emollient found in sheep's wool).

A Sheep by Any Other Name  

Ewe: female sheep
Ram: male sheep
Wether: castrated male sheep
Lamb: young sheep, less than 14 months old

Intelligent Sheep  

Not only can sheep recognize up to 50 other sheep faces and remember them for 2 years, but they can also recognize human faces.

Gay Sheep  

Approximately 8 percent of male sheep seek sex exclusively with other male sheep. Incidentally, the gay-themed Academy Award®-winning film Brokeback Mountain featured more than 700 sheep. Ennis and Jack, the cowboys played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, herded sheep in the grasslands of Wyoming.

A Long History  

Evidence has been found that wool cloth existed as far back as 10,000 B.C. By the time the Romans invaded Britain in 55 B.C., British woolen clothes were prized for their softness, and a wool industry had already been developed in the nation.

Overrun With Sheep  

There are 34.2 million sheep in New Zealand, or approximately seven sheep for every human. This, however, is still quite a change from 1982, when New Zealand had 70.3 million sheep, or an astounding 22 sheep for every person!

Pile of Sheep

Sheep and Goat  

Sheep and goats may look similar, but they're different species. Sheep have 54 chromosomes, while goats have 60 chromosomes.

Say Cheese  

Sheep's milk is ideal for making cheese. It contains higher levels of calcium, vitamins A, B and E and other nutritional elements than cow's milk. Famous types of sheep's milk cheese include Greek feta, French Roquefort, Spanish manchego and sheep's milk ricotta and pecorino romano from Italy.

Wool

Sheepish Eyes  

Sheep have excellent peripheral vision. Their large, rectangular pupils allow them to see almost 360 degrees. In fact, they can see behind themselves without turning their heads!

No More Itchy Sweaters?
 

U.S. demand for wool has declined since the end of World War II due to increased use of nylon, polyester and acrylic.

U.S. wool production:
1975: 55.1 million clean pounds
2002: 22 million clean pounds

Scared as Sheep  

Predators of sheep include coyotes, dogs, bears, big cats, foxes and eagles.

World's Most Expensive Sheep  

In 2009, an 8-month-old Scottish ram named Deveronvale Perfection was sold for £231,000 (or more than $380,000). A sheep farmer in Scotland purchased the ram for breeding.

Sailing to the New World on a Sea of Wool  

In the 15th century, Spain's thriving wool trade financed the expeditions of its conquistadors, including the voyage Christopher Columbus made to the New World. Indeed, Columbus came from a family of wool traders.

Death for Sheep  

Spain so valued its Merino sheep (which produced highly prized Merino wool) that until the 18th century, exporting sheep was an offense punishable by death.

Wool

All About Wool  

Wool, fiber made from the fleece of the sheep, is durable, insulating, wrinkle-resisting, fire-resistant and moisture-absorbing. It makes an ideal fabric for sweaters, coats, rugs, blankets and much more.

The Golden Fleece  

A sheep, depending on its type, can produce anywhere from two to 30 pounds of wool per year. In 2010, the average price paid for a pound of wool was $1.15 in the United States.

A Woolen Revolution
 

In the 17th century, King George III of England banned the export of sheep to American colonies. He also outlawed wool trading in the colonies in an effort to protect England's wool industry. This, along with other oppressive acts, led to the outbreak of the American Revolution.

Presidential Sheep  

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson had a flock of sheep trim the White House lawn.

Hello, Dolly!  

In 1996, Dolly, a Finnish Dorset sheep, was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. She was euthanized in 2003 due to lung disease. Dolly was named after singer Dolly Parton.

Helping Sheep  

Despite direct subsidies for sheep farmers, the U.S. wool and lamb industries have continued to decline over the past few decades. Hundreds of sheep farms have disappeared.

The documentary Sweetgrass follows the last modern-day cowboys as they lead their flocks of sheep up into the breathtaking and often dangerous mountains for summer pasture. The film has its national broadcast premiere on PBS' POV on Tuesday, July 5, 2011. Check your local listings.

Illustrations: © Sally Herships, sohosally.com

Sources:

Counting Sheep
» International Wool Textile Organisation. "Objectives."
Jones, Keithly G. "Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 787: Trends in the U.S. Sheep Industry." United States Department of Agriculture, January 2004.
» "Sheeps and Goats." United States Department of Agriculture, January 2011
Flying Sheep
» Jones, Keithly G. "Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 787: Trends in the U.S. Sheep Industry." United States Department of Agriculture, January 2004.
Where the Sheep Are
» Jones, Keithly G. "Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 787: Trends in the U.S. Sheep Industry." United States Department of Agriculture, January 2004.
Sheep Products
» World Book 2004. "Sheep."
Lamb Chop
» American Meat Institute. "U.S. Meat & Poultry Production and Consumption: An Overview."
» Jones, Keithly G. "Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 787: Trends in the U.S. Sheep Industry." United States Department of Agriculture, January 2004.
The Many Uses of Sheep
» International Tennis Federation. "Technical – History."
» World Book 2004. "Sheep."
A Sheep by Any Other Name
» World Book 2004. "Sheep."
Intelligent Sheep
» Onion, Amanda. "Study: Sheep Recognize Other Sheep, Even People." ABC News.
A Long History
» International Wool Textile Organisation. "History of Wool."
Overrun With Sheep
» "Sheep Jokes Aside, Kiwis Lose Their Friends." TVNZ, March 5, 2009.
Gay Sheep
» Schwartz, John. "Of Gay Sheep, Modern Science and Bad Publicity." The New York Times, January 25, 2007.
» Internet Movie Database. "Brokeback Mountain: Trivia."
Sheep and Goat
» World Book 2004. "Sheep."
Say Cheese
» Sheep101.info. "Dairy Sheep."
Sheepish Eyes
» Gill, Warren. "Applied Sheep Behavior." The University of Tennessee, Animal Science Department.
Scared as Sheep
» Jones, Keithly G. "Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 787: Trends in the U.S. Sheep Industry." United States Department of Agriculture, January 2004.
No More Itchy Sweaters?
» Jones, Keithly G. "Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 787: Trends in the U.S. Sheep Industry." United States Department of Agriculture, January 2004.
World's Most Expensive Sheep
» "£231,000 Sheep Sets Price Record." BBC News, August 28, 2009.
Sailing to the New World on a Sea of Wool
» American Sheep Industry Association. "History of Wool."
Death for Sheep
» American Sheep Industry Association. "History of Wool."
All About Wool
» World Book 2004. "Sheep."
The Golden Fleece
» Sheep101.info. "Real Men Wear Wool."
» Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. "Wool."
A Woolen Revolution
» American Sheep Industry Association. "History of Wool."
Presidential Sheep
» Presidential Pet Museum. "White House Pets."
Hello, Dolly!
» Weise, Elizabeth. "Dolly Was World's Hello to Cloning's Possibilities." USA Today, July 4, 2006.
Helping Sheep
» Jones, Keithly G. "Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 787: Trends in the U.S. Sheep Industry." United States Department of Agriculture, January 2004.





Talk About This

Share This

Sweetgrass... is a tribute to past and contemporary people who still manage to eke out a bittersweet living on the land.”

— Ilisa Barbash, Producer