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"I have wood for sheep" - (archetypal Settlers of Catan player)

Basic Information

Sheep (singular also sheep) are ruminating, quadruped ungulates kept as livestock. The archaeological record suggests that they are (amongst) the earliest species to be domesticated by mankind although separating early sheep from the closely related goat can be tricky. Like most livestock, sheep are herding animals - with a group collectively referred to as a flock - with a tendency to group into a variable number of females associated with a single male. Sheep tolerate relatively poor grazing land and can be ranged on hills, scrub and semi-arid land that cattle would not tolerate and so are a popular form of livestock in more marginal land, albeit traditionally of lower status than cattle. Sheep can also be grazed on arable fields post harvest to clear stubble and fertilize the land. Sheep are traditionally ranged rather than enclosed, travelling under the care of one or more shepherds and their dogs, sometimes over quite large distances - although modern practices have altered to include enclosed grazing and even indoor raising.

Approximately 90% of the world's sheep produce wool. One sheep produces anywhere from 2 to 30 pounds of wool annually1. The wool from one sheep is called a fleece, from many sheep, a clip. The amount of wool that a sheep produces depends upon its breed, genetics, nutrition, and shearing interval.

On breeding, a female sheep (ewe)2 will tend to produce between one and two offspring (lambs). Traditional farming practices tend to castrate male lambs and raise them for meat whilst the females are kept for breeding and wool. Culled at two years, lambs generally have about a 50% yield for the carcass weight and then about a 75% yield of meat from that carcass or about 34 pounds of meat from a whole 90 pound lamb. The meat from adult sheep - often those retired from wool production - is called mutton. In some cases - notably in the Australian grazing system where the supply of castrated males far exceeded the meat demand - fat sheep could be sent directly for tallow production.

Sheep can also be milked (generally for cheese production) and their skins used for leather - also, taking the leather with the fleece intact (although shorn) is common. This form of leather, unsurprisingly known as sheepskin, is often used for cold weather clothing.

Mythopoetically, the relationship between sheep and shepherd is often seen as a metaphor for monarchy - and indeed divine governance within the Judeo-Christian tradition - and whilst sheep are generally considered timid, stupid and easily led due to their herding behaviour the male sheep - or ram - is often celebrated as a symbol of virility and aggression, with its mask appearing on shield decorations and the striking heads of siege engines. Sheep - or more precisely rams - are also associated with the constellation Aries and, presumably by homophony, the Greek deity Ares.

See Also

  • Casu Marzu - things you never knew you could do with sheep's milk, but now wish you could forget


Game and Story Use

  • Sheep stealing is a long honoured form of inter community conflict, if a lower status one than cattle raiding.
  • Industrial scale sheep farming can devastate marginal land - in Australia it was a major cause of conflict with aboriginal tribes, whilst clearing land in England, Wales and Scotland for sheep farming lead to substantial migrations from the countryside, initially to urban areas and then to the overseas colonies. Including Australia…
  • In areas with significant sheep farming, mutton may be surprisingly cheap - it was a significant part of the British diet for a long time as a by-product of the country's extensive wool industry.
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