For the layman, a sheep is a sheep, and not much is known about how diverse the breeds can be, and how different the products that result from them are. Sheep have been a domesticated animal for as long as 10 000 years by some estimates. Like a lot of domesticated animals in ancient times, sheep were primarily used for food, namely meat, and dairy. It was only much later when wool became understood as a valuable commodity and a versatile material for a variety of uses, from garments to upholstery of household furniture. Sheep have become such valuable animals that they have become the symbol of civilization and trade. No surprise then that it’s one of the most biblical animals out there, representing prosperity before our modern times of materialistic abundance. With this much time invested in the practice and so many generations involved in the trade, the world of sheep has developed their own science of breeding and wool production.
If you are thinking of dedicating time to acquiring and keeping your very own flock of sheep – welcome! You’ll find it a meaningful and rewarding practice, which can get very complex if you’re inclined towards such challenges. Reasons for keeping sheep vary from person to person. Some will see shepherding as a business opportunity for selling wool, others will sell lamb to the meat market, and others simply like the animal enough to keep them as pets on their land.
The purpose of the flock will inform the breeds it will contain, and there are lots of them. The world counts over a thousand sheep breeds in total, and there are also slight differences within a breed that must be considered. Another crucial set of considerations is climate, landscape and overall environment. For example, you might have a certain kind of wool market in mind, but the breed that produces it might not fare well in your environment.
Finally, it’s important to always remember that you’re dealing with a live animal. The differences between breeds are not just physical but also psychological. Some breeds will be feistier than others, making them more high-maintenance, so make sure you are realistic about your level of skill and dedication to the trade. If you are a beginner, it is perhaps best to earn your initial experience with a more docile set of breeds. You can trust that there will be more challenges to deal with besides that.
Basically, there are three categories of sheep – wool, meat and mixed. This is an oversimplification, but it is a good way of categorizing breeds initially. Remember, there is no such thing as the ultimate breed for any of the categories. The number of variables and environmental factors that will determine “the best” will always be individual. So beginning to gather your flock is really a process of elimination of certain breeds that are clearly unsuitable for your environment, purpose and even budget.