Domestic Sheep

Wayne and Gladys Valley Children's Zoo

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Sheep and goats belong to the family Bovidae, along with gazelles, antelope, bison, and cattle. Three defining characteristics of the bovidae family. These animals are all hoofed with 2 toes being most prominent. They are ruminants, or cud chewing herbivores. Meaning they have a chambered stomach which allows them to process food by regurgitation and rechewing, while their stomach contains microbes that assist with a fermentation style digestive process. And third, they all have horns that are permanent or do not shed, and they grow in one unit, they do not branch off the main part like a deer or elk. Physical Characteristics vary greatly considering there are over 200 breeds of domestic sheep, there is significant variation with size, type of wool or hair, color range from cream to black with vast combinations, external ear shape, and so on. Overall domestic sheep are more stocky and robust than goats and have a fleece that is thick that grows long and needs to be shorn. Wild sheep however have hair that grows longer to become the outer coat and short fine wool that serves as an undercoat. If horns are present they tend to sit wide on the head and curl backward. Throughout history domestic sheep have been bred for various traits. The products that humans have selected for are types of wool or hair, milk or meat, there are even combinations that include combinations of these product producing traits.

Species Specifics

Physical Characteristics




Domestic sheep live worldwide in association with humans.



Ecological Web

Due to the versatility of this species, sheep have been an economic significance not only as a source of agriculture production. They have shaped lifestyles and cultures. Since domestication sheep have been some source of support in nearly every county. From sources of meat, milk, wool and hides, to sacrificial, even scientific research these animals are contributors to our world. Because they are so prolific as a domestic animal, and wide spread due to human movement. There is an adverse effect on populations of wild relatives, competition for food and disease spread is problematic.

Activity and Behavior

Activity Pattern



Sheep have a highly developed flocking or herding instinct. They move over areas in groups as large as 1000 individuals! Within the flock there isn’t an overall leader that initiates feeding, fleeing, or flocking. Therefore the flocking instinct contributes to the success of single shepherd and shows one small way this species has become an efficient agricultural staple.

Social Behavior

One thing that many of us may know about sheep is that they are known to be in flocks.

Reproductive Behavior

Seasonal breeders. Females go into estrus in the late summer as the days begin to shorten and cycle through January. Gestation lasts about 4 ½ months, 142-152 days. Intact males are ram. Castrated males are wethers. Females are ewe. Offspring are lambs. Kids are born in the Spring.


Ewes can give birth to 1-3 lambs. It is common to have twins in well managed herds and at high fertility years. Birthing is known as laming. At birth lambs weight ranges 5-12 lbs. Lambs stand up within 30 minutes of birth, and are looking to nurse within the first hour. Lambs are weaned around 2 months of age.



There are wild sheep that are endangered. Peninsular bighorn sheep numbers are incredibly low, just over 950 Peninsular bighorn sheep Ovis canadensis nelsoni are left in the US. [Their current range is from the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California to Baja California, Mexico. Bighorn sheep rams are wide ranging, moving between ewe groups and linking the subpopulations together. Human disturbances, development, several major highways, and the recently built fence along the US-Mexico border have compromised the ability for small subpopulations to connect for breeding. After Peninsular bighorn sheep were listed as endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put together a team of bighorn sheep experts and asked them to create a plan for the sheep's recovery. The plan calls for a number of actions, including increased habitat protection and restoration, reduction of human impact, and development of public education programs. Researchers from San Diego Zoo Global are working with collaborators in Mexico collecting data, using camera traps, tracking bighorn sheep signs, and collecting fecal samples for genetic analysis.]-San Diego Zoo Global


Wild goats and sheep have been hunted for thousands of years, it is thought that humans began domesticating them 8,000 to 10,000 years ago in Southwest Asia and the Middle East. Domestic sheep are descendants of the wild Mouflon(Ovis aries musimon)

Current Threats

Our Role

How You Can Help

You can help us bring bighorn sheep and other sheep and goat species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and other accredited zoos and aquariums. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.

Fascinating Facts

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Goats and sheep are closely related, no wonder it can be difficult to tell them apart. Here are some tips that you can use to tell them apart next time you visit.