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Sheep are ruminant animals of the genus Ovis. They have been domesticated for around 5,000 years and are an important source of food and textiles, as their fleece is customarily shorn annually to produce wool. Sheep meat is eaten in many countries, and some societies also use sheep’s milk and cheese, although this is less common. Different species of sheep have been crossbred with the aim of improving their adaptability to local environmental conditions, and to improve the quality and usefulness of their products. Sheep farming is an important agricultural activity in a number of countries and it is estimated that more than 1,000 million animals are kept globally. A sheep known as Dolly has a particular place in history owing to its being an early example of cloning.
Sheep are herbivores and eat grasses and legumes. They are known for their willingness to flock together for fear of danger and for following any of their fellows who takes a lead. These characteristics have provided the basic structure to sheep farming. This includes the role of the shepherd, who keeps the sheep in outdoor locations overnight so that the sheep can graze on local plants. The shepherd frequently keeps a dog that has been trained to respond to the shepherd’s direction and to cause the sheep flock to move in directions as desired by the shepherd. The dog also assists in protecting the sheep from predators such as wolves, which have been eliminated from the wilds of most developed countries. Since the sheep remain together, the labor requirement is comparatively low for most of the year, with additional input necessary during the lambing and shearing seasons.
Since sheep graze on grass growing in open spaces, sheep farmers are antithetical to small-scale agricultural holdings or homesteads. This was perhaps most clearly seen in 18th and 19th century Scotland during the Highland Clearances. England had attempted to dominate and control Scotland for several centuries. Smallholders, or crofters, populated the Highland area of Scotland. The English aristocracy forcibly dispossessed them to use the land for large-scale sheep farms, resulting in the rapid depopulation of the region. Sheep are recorded in religious and historical documents from the Middle East thousands of years ago and there are still large numbers in Iran. Today some of the largest numbers are kept in China, India, and countries of the former Soviet Union. The industry is also significant in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and similar countries with wide-open grasslands, though these areas are more important to the agricultural industry.
Modern sheep farming approaches the intensive forms of agriculture practiced in other forms of farming, but the characteristics of sheep prevent the industrialization of their keeping. Sheep are subject to various pests, including scrapie and foot and mouth disease, which occasionally lead to the widespread culling of flocks. Incidents in which the feed of the sheep has been altered for commercial or technological reasons are often associated with the outbreak of pestilence.
The products of the sheep, as agricultural commodities, are also subject to demand and market fluctuations. This means that farmers have to contend with the impact of international trade negotiations over which they have little control. During the 1990s, French farmers seized and burnt some shipments of British lamb that they believed was receiving unfair trade promotion. In these circumstances, the comfort and convenience of the animals is rarely awarded top priority.
- Food and Agricultural Organization, www.fao.org;
- Iain Macdonald, Glencoe and Beyond: The Sheep-Farming Years, 1780-1830 (John Donald Publishers Ltd., 2005);
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, www.fas.usda.gov.