Sheep and goat
Grazing domestic sheep and lambs, Hammerknuden, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Domestic goats, blocking a road, Col du Mt. Cenis, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
He followed her to school one day,
That was against the rule.
It made the children laugh and play,
To see a lamb at school.
And so the teacher turned him out,
But still he lingered near,
And waited patiently about,
Till Mary did appear,
And then he ran to her, and laid
His head upon her arm,
As if he said: “I’m not afraid,
You’ll keep me from all harm.”
“What makes the lamb love Mary so?”
The eager children cry.
“O, Mary loves the lamb, you know,”
The teacher did reply,
“And you each gentle animal
In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call,
If you are always kind.”
– Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), American writer and editor.
Sheep (Ovis aries) were among the first animals to be domesticated by humans, maybe as early as 11,000 to 9000 B.C., in Mesopotamia. The ancestor of the domestic sheep is still disputed, but today the most common hypothesis is that it is descended from the Asiatic mouflon (Ovis orientalis). Previously, it was assumed that it is descended from the European mouflon (Ovis musimon). However, today many authorities regard this species as an ancient breed of domestic sheep, which has turned feral.
A male sheep is called a ram, or tup, and a castrated ram is a wether. A female is called a ewe. This word is pronounced in various ways, often as ‘yo’ or ‘you’, in Scotland as ‘yow’ (rhyming on ‘how’). Young sheep are called lambs.
Initially, sheep were raised for meat, milk, and skins, the latter utilized for warmth in the fierce winters of the Middle East.
Woolly sheep emerged in Iran around 6000 B.C., and the earliest woven clothes known are from about 4000 to 3000 B.C. Over time, various cultures, including the Persians, relied on income from trading wool.
Not long after the domestication of sheep, they were brought to other parts of Asia, and around 6000 B.C. they were also brought to Egypt via the Sinai Peninsula. They were present in Europe from about the same time.
In America, the first sheep arrived with the second voyage of Columbus in 1493, and the first sheep were brought to Australia in 1788. By 1820, there were already about 100,000 on the Australian continent, and just ten years later a million. Today, the total population worldwide is estimated at one billion.
Over the years, numerous breeds of sheep have evolved. These pictures show two breeds: Oxford Down with lambs (top), and Gotland sheep, photographed on a cold winter morning, their breath forming steam. – Both pictures are from Jutland, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Shearing a Gotland sheep with an electric trimmer, a so-called handpiece, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Assisted by dogs, these people are driving home a large flock of sheep along the road, Col de la Madelaine, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These sheep have spent the entire summer on grazing grounds in the mountains around Fnjóská, near Akureyri, northern Iceland. They have now been rounded up, after which they are divided according to owners, using earmarks as a means of identification. The owner will then take his sheep back to the farm on board trucks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A live road-block. – Numerous sheep block the passage of a bus on a high-altitude gravel road in Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sheep in culture and mythology
Domestic sheep were present in Egypt from about 6000 B.C. To the Ancient Egyptians, a ram-headed sphinx was the symbol of the god Amun, who, during the 11th Dynasty (21st Century B.C.), was the patron deity of Thebes. Later, he became an important national god, being fused with the Sun God, Ra, to become Amun-Ra.
Ram-headed sphinx, photographed at the Great Temple of Amun, Karnak, Luxor. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A famous sheep skin plays an important role in the Greek epic Jason and the Golden Fleece, from at least the 8th Century B.C., in which Jason and his Argonauts set out on a quest, by order of his uncle, King Pelias, who had usurped the throne in the city of Iolcos, in Aeolia, from his half-brother, Jason’s father.
When Jason grows up, he travels to Iolcos to demand the throne, but is ordered first to obtain the fleece of a golden-haired, winged ram, which is kept in the land of Colchis (on the Black Sea coast, in present-day Georgia), guarded by a terrible dragon. This fleece is a symbol of royal authority, and in case Jason and his men should succeed in acquiring the fleece and bring it to him, Pelias believes that he will remain on the throne.
The quest of Jason and his men is successful, and back in Iolcos, he presents King Pelias with the Golden Fleece. Later, however, he kills him and takes over the throne.
Jason presents King Pelias with the Golden Fleece, and Nike, the Winged Goddess of Victory, prepares to crown him with a wreath. – Apulian vase, c. 340 B.C., exhibited in Louvre. (Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, public domain)
Goats go past the back of the house, like dry leaves in the dawn,
And up the hill like a river, if you watch.
At dusk, they patter back like a bough, being dragged on the ground,
Raising dusk and acridity of goats, and bleating.
– David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930), English poet and writer.
A cousin of the sheep, the goat, is also among the earliest domesticated animals. About 8000 B.C., inhabitants of the Zagros Mountains in south-western Iran began domesticating the local wild goat, the Bezoar goat (Capra aegagrus). These Stone Age people were herding goats for their meat and milk, the pelt was used as clothing, tools were made from the bones, and the dung was used as fuel.
The domestic goat is still closely related to the Bezoar goat, which is named ssp. aegagrus, to distinguish it from the domestic goat, ssp. hircus.
A male goat is called a billy, or a buck, whereas a castrated male is a wether (like a castrated sheep). A female goat is a nanny or a doe. Young goats are called kids.
Over time, goats, similar to sheep, have been spread to most areas of the globe. Its total worldwide population is estimated at one billion, about half of which are in Asia.
The domestic goat has evolved into numerous breeds. This picture shows the Wallis goat, a Swiss breed with black foreparts and white hind parts. This flock is resting on a rocky outcrop on the island of Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Goats are mostly kept for their meat and milk. In this picture, dried goat carcasses are for sale at a market in the town of Shigatse, Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Goats are very agile. Standing on its hindlegs, this one is feeding on a bush in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This goat in the city of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India, is investigating provisions on a loaded camel in search of food, but is chased away by the camel. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Resting kids, Tamur Valley, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
It is almost unbelievable, what goats are able to digest – bone-dry grass, thorny twigs, cardboard boxes. Indeed, in northern India, I once watched a herd of goat head straight for a growth of very poisonous thorn-apples (Datura stramonium) and commence eating the fruits. Apparently, goat stomachs can neutralize the toxins.
“Yummy! This cardboard box is really delicious!” – Izmir, Turkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Hindu festival of Bisket Jatra is celebrated with vigour by the Newar population of the city of Bhaktapur, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. During this festival, several gods are worshipped, notably Kalo Bhairab, a local form of the supreme god Shiva.
These Newars in Bhaktapur have just sacrificed a goat to Kalo Bhairab. They then apply oil to the head of the goat and ignite it. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Kali is a Hindu goddess, a bloodthirsty form of Devi, the shakti (female energy) of Shiva. In temples, dedicated to Kali, daily offerings of blood are made. The various forms of Devi are described on the page Religion: Hinduism.
Newar people, waiting in line with their offerings outside a Kali temple at Dakshinkali, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. The commotion is caused by the goat, which has just left pellets on the feet of a woman. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Heavy impact on the environment
In many countries, sheep and goats have a heavy impact on the environment, often seriously overgrazing areas, as their numbers are often far too high for the vegetation to sustain them. Such areas include most countries around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, Tibet, the Himalaya, and the Andes.
On numerous small islands around the globe, goats have often escaped (or have been released on purpose), forming feral populations, which create havoc through overgrazing. These islands are mostly without larger predators, meaning that the goats have no natural enemies here. Measures have been taken to rid many of these islands of their goats.
Huge mixed flock of sheep and goats on an overgrazed slope, Bara Lacha Pass, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, India (top), and near Sarchu, Ladakh, India (centre). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Goats, grazing in a desert, Jhong River Valley, Mustang, central Nepal. The only vegetation, which has been left by the goats, consists of extremely spiny bushes and toxic plants. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded September 2017)
(Latest update April 2020)