Sheep and goat
Grazing sheep and lambs, Hammerknuden, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This flock of goats is blocking a road, Col du Mt. Cenis, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
“Yummy! This cardboard box is really delicious!” – It is unbelievable what goats are able to digest – dry grass, thorny bushes, 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. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sheep (Ovis aries) were among the first animals to be domesticated by humans, maybe as early as 11000-9000 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), but today many authorities regard this species as an ancient breed of domestic sheep, turned feral.
Initially, sheep were raised for meat, milk, and skins, the latter utilized for warmth in the fierce winters of the Middle East. 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, but back in Iolcos he kills Pelias, taking over the throne.
Woolly sheep emerged in Iran around 6000 B.C., and the earliest woven clothes known are from about 4000-3000 B.C. Over time, various cultures, e.g. the Persians, relied on income from trading wool.
Not long after the domestication of sheep, they spread 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)
Sheep were kept 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. – This ram-headed sphinx was photographed at the Great Temple of Amun, Karnak, Luxor. (Photo 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)
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, for their pelt, used as clothing, for their bones, used for tools, and for their dung, used as fuel. The domestic goat is still closely related to the Bezoar goat, which is named Capra aegagrus aegagrus, to distinguish it from the domestic goat, which is named C. a. hircus. Like sheep, goats over time spread to most areas of the globe, and the total population worldwide of goats is also estimated at one billion, of which about half are found in Asia.
Today, in many countries, both species constitute a threat to the local environment, as their numbers are often so high that many areas are seriously overgrazed, including most countries around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, Tibet, the Himalaya, and the Andes. Where they have been released (or escaped) on small islands, feral goats create havoc, as they have no natural enemies. Measures have been taken to rid many of these islands of these goats.
Like the domestic sheep, the domestic goat has evolved into numerous breeds. This picture shows a flock of Wallis goats, a Swiss breed, 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. This one is feeding on a bush in the Tahr Desert of Rajasthan, India, standing on its hindlegs. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This goat is investigating provisions on a loaded camel in search of food, but is chased away by the camel. – Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India. (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 Shiva. These men, who have just sacrificed a goat to Kalo Bhairab, have applied oil to the head of the goat and ignited it. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A bloodthirsty form of Devi, the shakti (female energy) of the Hindu god Shiva, is Kali, in whose temples a daily offering of blood is made. These Newar people are waiting in line with their offerings at a Kali temple in Dakshinkali, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. The commotion is caused by the goat, which has just left pellets on the feet of one of the women. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sheep and goats have a heavy impact on the environment, often seriously overgrazing areas, especially in deserts. These pictures show mixed flocks of sheep and goats on the Bara Lacha Pass, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, India (top), and near Sarchu, Ladakh, India (centre). The bottom picture shows grazing goats in a desert in the Jhong River Valley, Mustang, central Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded September 2017)
(Revised June 2018)