Sheep Breeds

Posted by on Monday, October 2nd, 2017 in General

Can you believe that there are thought to be more breeds of sheep than another other livestock species except chickens? It is hard to know exactly how many breeds of sheep there are worldwide because not all countries maintain breed registries; however, it is believed there are more than 1000 distinct breeds of sheep, with more than 50 breeds in the United States alone.

Sheep were one of the first animals to be domesticated, beginning in 10,000-8,000 B.C in Mesopotamia. Selective breeding based on wool type, flocking instincts, milk production, meat quality, etc. has resulted in the vast array of distinct breeds that are recognized today.

Sheep breeds vary greatly in size, shape, color, and coat type and can be classified in multiple ways. One popular way to classify breeds is based on the primary purpose for which the sheep are raised: meat, milk or wool production. Meat sheep usually produce medium or long wool; however, they are raised primarily for the quality of their meat. Popular breeds raised for meat in the United States are Dorset, Hampshire, Shropshire, Southdown and Suffolk.

Milk or dairy sheep have been breed for increased milk production. While any lactating ewe can be milked, dairy breeds produce 400-1,100 lbs of milk per lactation compared to 100-200 lbs of milk per lactation in many non-dairy breeds. East Fresian, Lacaune, Rideau Arcott, British Milksheep, and Awassi are dairy breeds found in the United States.

Sheep breeds can also be classified based on the type of coat that they grow. Wool coats can be made of fine, medium, long, or carpet wool fibers or sheep can have hair coats. Fine wool breeds have wool fibers with a very small diameter, less that 24.5 microns and account for approximately 50% of the sheep population worldwide. Most fine wool breeds are related to the Merino breed and can be found across Australia, South Africa, western United States, and Canada, they do well in arid and semi-arid climates and have strong flocking instincts. Rambouillet, a fine wool breed related to the Merino, is a very common breed found in the United States.

Medium wool sheep breeds have wool fibers between 24.6-32.5 microns thick and include many of the breeds that are raised for meat. Medium wool sheep breeds make up about 15% of the world’s sheep population

Long wool breeds have longer and thicker wool fibers, over 32.6 microns and are better adapted for cooler areas with higher rainfalls such as England, Scotland, New Zealand, and Falkland Islands. Examples of long wool breeds include the Border Leicester, Coopworth, Cotswold, Perendale, Racka, Lincoln, Romney and Leicester Longwool.

Carpet wool breeds have the coarsest wool, with wool fibers thicker than 38 microns, and their wool is used in carpet production. Generally, they have a double coat with the coarse wool providing a thick outer coat to protect them from harsh environments. The Icelandic, Karakul, Navajo Churro, and Scottish Blackface are all carpet wool breeds.

(If you would like to learn more about wool, the International Wool Textile Organization has a website (, where you can find out more about wool production and the wool industry.)

Hair sheep grow a coat of hair instead of wool. Some hair sheep breeds have pure hair coats and some have a mixture of hair and wool. Hair coats do not need to be sheared because their coat sheds yearly. Most hair sheep breeds are found in Africa and the Caribbean, but can also be found in the temperate climates of the United States and Canada.

Hair sheep breeds make up about 10% of the world sheep population and could be the fastest growing segment in the United States sheep industry. Katahdin is a breed developed in the United States and it leads US sheep breeds in registration numbers and transfers.  Other examples of hair sheep breeds include Dorper, Barbados Blackbelly, St. Croix, Royal White and Painted Desert.

Distinctive traits such as fat-tailed or rumped, short or rat-tailed or how prolific a breed is can also be used to classify breeds. For example, fat-tailed or rumped breeds store large amounts of fat in the tail and rump regions giving them a very distinctive appearance. Some fat-tailed breeds are raised for milk production and some are raised for meat production. They are found mostly in the extreme environments of Africa, Middle East and Asia; however, the Karakul and Awassi breeds have been introduced into the United States.

Obviously, the sheep breeds mentioned here are only a few examples of those found in the United States and worldwide. For further information on sheep breeds found in the United States and a breed directory visit the American Sheep Industry Association website ( or for a list of more sheep breeds found worldwide visit Sheep Breeds A-Z at

By: Kelcey


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