Friday, October 16, 2009

In Praise of Sheep

Wild and Woolly

Sheep are neither stupid nor are they necessarily flocking animals. Tough, resourceful, and resilient, sheep can be found all over the world – a testament to their enduring usefulness. They have fed, clothed and housed mankind for over 10,000 years. Bred to be gentle, biddable, and to flock together, the modern sheep is a far cry from its wild forbearer.

There are a number of different theories regarding the origins of domestic sheep. Most sources agree that they originated from mouflon (Ovis aries). There are two wild populations of mouflons still in existence: the Asiatic mouflon, which is still found in the mountains of Asia Minor and southern Iran, and the European mouflon, of which the only existing members are on the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. Some sources hypothesize that the European mouflon are actually descendants of the Asiatic mouflon. Regardless, these two species of mouflon are closely related, with the only difference being the redder coloration and different horn configuration of the Asiatic mouflon. The Asiatic mouflon is threatened over its entire range. They are bred on big game ranches in the US, but are seldom found to be of pure blood as they readily interbred both with domestic sheep and the bighorn sheep.

Sheep were among the first animals domesticated. A statuette of a wool sheep was discovered at an archeological site in Iran, which suggests that selection for woolly sheep had begun to occur over 6000 years ago. The common features of today's sheep were already appearing in Mesopotamian and Babylonian art by 3000 B.C.

From the Acipayam of Turkey to the Zoulay of Morocco, there are approximately 283 named breeds of sheep. Human selection over the centuries -- for wool type, flocking instinct and other economically important traits -- has resulted in these varied breeds. Modern breeding schemes have also resulted in an increasing number of composite breeds, which are the result of a crossing of two or more established breeds.

According to the North American Shetland Sheep Association (NASSA), Shetland Sheep come in 22 named colors and many pattern variations. Many of the other double-coated breeds also come in many different colors. While 22 is the number that the NASSA has come up with, the truth is that sheep come in so many subtle shades of these colors that the range is almost limitless.

The uses that sheep are put to come mainly in three broad categories: wool, meat, and milk. The milk is used in cheese, primarily Roquefort, which is always made with sheep’s milk, and some parmesan cheeses. Sheep meat, when grass-finished, is fine-grained and richly flavored.

But the primary use to which sheep are put is, of course, for their wool. More than 60% of the wool produced around the world is used for clothing. Some less familiar uses for wool include felted padding for piano hammers and even fertilizer.

Sources used for this article include:
American Livestock Breed Conservancy
American Sheep Industry Association
Oklahoma State University Livestock Pages