Sheep: How We Got Here

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / The Unbound Project

When most people think of sheep, they often picture woolly flocks grazing in idyllic pastures. Most people don’t realize that the domestic sheep we know today are the result of thousands of years of human intervention and domestication to produce specific human-desired traits. 

A Long History Of Domestication

Sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated 11,000 years ago and are descended from the mouflon. Multiple mitochondrial lineages have been identified in domestic sheep, indicating multiple domestication events. It is believed that sheep were originally domesticated in response to declining wild sheep populations caused by over-hunting. In order to try to maintain wild sheep populations, humans transitioned to controlled hunting, then breeding and herd management, which ultimately led to domestication. Sheep were originally raised for their flesh, but in the fifth millennium BP, humans began to breed and raise some sheep specifically for milk and wool. These domestication events and breeding of sheep for specific human-desired traits led to the diverse world of domestic sheep breeds we know today.

The Reality Of Sheep Farming

Most people don’t realize the dire conditions sheep face within the confines of animal agriculture, or that sheep are exploited for more than their wool. In reality, sheep are raised for their flesh, milk, and fiber, and often a combination of these.

Sheep Used For Their Flesh

In the United States alone, over 2 million sheep and lambs are slaughtered for their flesh every year. In the U.S., human demand dictates that sheep are primarily slaughtered between the ages of six and eight months old (sheep slaughtered past a year of age are considered to have less desirable flesh), a tiny fraction of their ten to twelve year average lifespan. Sheep raised for their flesh are typically done so in crowded, unhygienic conditions that can lead to ammonia-related scalding injuries and great stress to individual sheep. These animals are routinely slaughtered without effective stunning or anesthesia, sometimes shipped long distances without food or water. Breeds commonly raised for their flesh include Hampshire, Suffolk, Black-Bellied Barbados, Targhee, Polypay, Cheviot, Dorset, and Jacob.

Sheep Used For Their Milk

Starting in the fifth millennium BP, humans started breeding some sheep specifically for their milk. Although sheep dairy production is a smaller industry than cow or goat dairy, it carries many of the same exploitative hallmarks; like cows, sheep in the dairy industry are commonly impregnated against their will, their babies taken away shortly after birth, and they are forced to give their milk until no longer considered profitable enough to keep alive, at which point they are slaughtered. Also like cows, sheep exploited for their milk are prone to mastitis, a serious and painful disease of the udder. Although any ewe can be exploited for their milk, some breeds have been created by humans to maximize their milk production. Common sheep breeds exploited for their milk include the East Friesan, Lacaune, Awassi, and Assaf.

Sheep Used For Their Fiber

When people think of sheep, they often think of wool, and then make the incorrect assumption that wool production is natural and cruelty-free. However, these hot, heavy, fast-growing coats are the result of selective breeding: wild sheep naturally produce only enough wool to protect them from hot and cold weather. Domestic sheep bred for wool production grow unnaturally thick coats that require trimming in order to prevent issues such as overheating. In commercial settings, these sheep are often kept in crowded, unhygienic environments which are stressful and dangerous to the sheep. Sheep shearers typically pin them to the ground, and cause frequent untreated injuries and wounds with the electric clippers as speed is prioritized over treatment of the sheep. Many sheep raised for their fiber are shorn in the wintertime with little remaining warmth after they lose their coats, resulting in freezing-related illnesses and deaths. When they are no longer considered good producers of fiber for humans, they are typically sent to the slaughterhouse without food or water for either their meat or their skin. In Australia, the world’s largest producer of wool, sheep no longer deemed profitable for wool production are often transported on massive, crowded ships to areas of the world where there is a demand for mature sheep flesh. These voyages can last up to 3 weeks. Sheep breeds commonly exploited for their fiber include the Merino, Rambouillet, Cormo, Finn, Border Leicester, Lincoln, Wensleydale, Cotswold, Shetland, Dorset, Suffolk, Southdown, Tunis, Karakul, Icelandic, and Navajo Churro. Some breeds are considered “dual purpose” and are raised both for their flesh and their wool, though ultimately, most sheep raised for their wool are eventually slaughtered for their flesh.

In addition to the misconception that sheep naturally produce large quantities of excess wool, many people tend to think sheep are devoid of individuality and intelligence, and use the term sheep to insult humans they deem as “followers.” However, studies have proven that sheep have individual personalities (something compassionate caregivers already knew!), and when sheep act as a collective flock, this is not an example of them lacking individuality or intelligence, but is actually an intentional survival skill designed to protect the flock. So next time you hear someone use the term “sheep” as an insult, let them know that sheep stick together to keep everyone safe. Humans might do well to be more like sheep.

SOURCES:

Sheep For Meat And Wool | Woodstock Farm Sanctuary

Sheep | Farm Sanctuary

Why Sheep Matter: They’re Intelligent, Emotional, And Unique | Psychology Today

Genetic History Of Sheep Domestication 

Revealing The History Of Sheep Domestication Using Retrovirus Integrations

How And When Sheep Were First Domesticated | Thought Co

Sheep Breeds For Fiber, Meat, Or Dairy | Countryside (Non-Compassionate Source)

Dairy Sheep Breeds | Milking Sheep (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?
If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on October 27, 2020

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