Comparison of Sheep Breeds

Sheep are one of the most ancient of recorded domestic animals and have been raised for their fiber for thousands of years. Just how long people have been harvesting wool, spinning yarn and knitting with it, is hard to say. But it certainly dates back a long time.

 

There are hundreds of different breeds of sheep, raised for wool and meat production, all over the world. The largest percentage of sheep breeds originate in Northern Europe and especially the UK.

Many sheep can be traced back to their early domesticated homes by their names. Named for areas they once occupied, breeds like the Rambouillet and  North Ronaldsy are easily identifiable. Other breeds acquired their names for their physical appearance and attributes. Selective breeding and cross-breeding has allowed modern sheep farmers to raise sheep with ideal wools for commercial yarn production.

Though instinctually you know that a yarn labelled 'wool' came from a sheep, have you ever picked up a ball of wool yarn and wondered what kind of sheep it came from, what the sheep was called, or what it looked like?

Did you picture it as a plump, woolly critter, like the Poll Merino at the top?

Or perhaps as a short haired, bald face sheep, like the Clun Forest (middle).

Or you may have even imagined a unique four-horned sheep. Yes, they do exist....consider the Manx Loaghtan (lower).

In most cases the exact breed of sheep that produced the yarn in your stash is going to remain a mystery. Few yarns divulge the exact breed or combination of breeds that they contain. But that doesn't mean that you can't study the fascinating world of woolly sheep. The gallery below shows a small sampling of the over 1400 breeds of sheep raised worldwide. Hover over each image for a brief description of it's characteristics.

Poll merino ram
Clun Forest sheep
Four-horned Manx Loaghtan rams
White Polled Heath
White Polled Heath

Hornless, short-tailed Northern German sheep. 88-150 lbs

Targhee
Targhee

Hardy sheep, weighing 125 to 300 lbs, raised especially in the Western US.

Swaledale
Swaledale

Hardy English breed, native to Swaledale Valley, Yorkshire.

Shetland
Shetland

Scottish sheep breed, weighing 41-45 kg, raised for it's fine wool.

Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz

Rare breed of domestic sheep from Santa Cruz Island, at risk of extinction.

Roslag
Roslag

Endangered Swedish sheep, weighing 80-110 lbs, with long hair and horns only on males.

Romney
Romney

Hardy English long-wool breed, producing thick wool and weighing 140-200 lbs.

Rambouillet
Rambouillet

French merino breed, weighing 200-300 lbs and producing wool with a staple length of 2-4 inches.

Racka
Racka

Native to Hungary, with a double coat of curly hair.

Poll Merino
Poll Merino

Hornless Australian sheep breed.

Ouessant
Ouessant

Short-tailed French breed of sheep, raised on the Island of Ouessant, of the coast of Brittany, France, these sheep are one of the smallest breeds in the world, the males measuring only 19 inches high at the shoulder.

North Ronaldsay
North Ronaldsay

Northern Scottish breed of domesticated sheep, measuring 6 feet tall at the shoulder and noted for being able to survive for months at a time on a pure seaweed diet.

Navajo-Churro
Navajo-Churro

Hardy American sheep breed, dating back to the Spanish Conquest during the 16th Century. A Navajo-Churro ram may have more than 6 horns!

Najdi
Najdi

Arabian sheep breed, native to Saudi Arabia and the surrounding areas. The Najdi sheep are tall with unique, drooping ears. A Najdi ewe may sell for more than $8000.

Merino
Merino

The Merino sheep family consists of several breeds, including the Delaine and Rambouillet. Merino wool is warmer and generally softer than other wools.

Marwari
Marwari

Indian sheep breed, related to the Persian sheep and producing a rough wool, best suited for carpets and other similar uses.

Manx Loaghtan
Manx Loaghtan

Dark brown, 4-6 horned sheep, native to the Isle of Man, raised primarily for meat, but also for wool. The name Manx Loaghtan is derived from Manx words 'lugh dhoan' which means 'mouse-brown'.

Lincoln
Lincoln

Largest of the British sheep breeds, renowned for it's long and heavy fleece. Lincoln's weigh from 200 to 350 lbs.

Karayaka
Karayaka

The Karayaka, meaning 'Black-Neck' is a Turkish breed, raised primarily for milk and meat. It's wool is harvested for use in carpets and similar items.

Karakul
Karakul

Domestic breed native to Central Asia, now being raised mainly in Uzbekistan. The Karakul's can survive in very harsh climates and survive through long droughts, due to a special ability to store fat in their tails.

Jacob
Jacob

Rare breed of small sheep, with 2-6 horns, raised for their wool and meat. They can also be used as guard animals and will defend other livestock against predators.

Icelandic
Icelandic

Cold-hardy domestic sheep raised in Iceland for their wool and meat. Ewes may be mated as early as 7 months old and may give birth to as many as 6 lambs at a time.

Hog Island
Hog Island

American breed, originally brought to Hog Island, VA in the 18th Century, from whence they derive their name. They are believed to be descendant from the Merino breeds and may weight from 90 to 135 lbs.

Heidschnucke
Heidschnucke

German breed, raised especially in Lüneburg Heath. Both sexes may have horns and they are greyish-black in color.

Gromark
Gromark

British sheep breed raised for it's wool and meat and raised especially for their fast growth rate, fertility and wool characteristics. They weigh approximately 175 lbs.

Grey Troender
Grey Troender

Extremely rare breed of Norweigan sheep. The Grey Troender breed is nearly extinct, there being only about 50 sheep as of 2016.

Faroe
Faroe

Norweigan sheep breed, originating on the Faroe Islands, between Norway and Iceland. They are a short-tailed hardy sheep, weighing only 45-90 lbs.

Devon Longwoolled
Devon Longwoolled

Domestic sheep breed raised in the UK for their meat and wool.

Danish Landrace
Danish Landrace

Danish breed, descendant from the Heath and Merino breeds. The Danish Landrace is a small breed, weighing from 110 to 180 lbs.

Dalesbred
Dalesbred

The Dalesbred is an English sheep breed, descendant from the Swaledale and Scottish Blackface breeds. They are raised for both their wool and meat and produce a carpet-quality fleece.

Cotswold
Cotswold

Native to the Cotswold Hills of England, this breed is relatively rare with greyish-tan hair. It was brought to the US in 1831 by Christopher Dunn of New York.

Corriedale
Corriedale

Raised in Australia, the United States, Uruguay and New Zealand for both their meat and wool, the Corriedale is a Merino-Lincoln cross and has a long life span and produces thick, bulky fleece.

Cormo
Cormo

The Cormo sheep, bred in Australia, is a cross between Corridale rams and Saxon Merino ewes. They produce a fast growing fleece of 18 to 22 microns in diameter.

Columbia
Columbia

One of the first breeds to be introduced to the United States. They weigh between 175-400 lbs and produce a medium grade wool, measuring from 24 to 31 microns.

Clun Forest
Clun Forest

Originating in England, the Clun Forest is a hardy, adaptable sheep with a long life span. They produce a medium length wool. Ewes usually give birth to twins which grow quickly due to the butterfat in the ewes milk.

Cheviot
Cheviot

Raised in Scotland, the Cheviot is a dual-purpose breed, raised for both their meat and wool.

Askanian
Askanian

Ukrainian sheep breed, producing a fine wool and weighing from 130 to 250 lbs. They were produced by crossing American Rambouillet's with Merino's.

Arapawa
Arapawa

Raised in New Zealand, they have fine merino-like wool and the rams have spiral horns, measuring up to 3 feet in length. They are classified as a rare breed.

Alpines steinschaf
Alpines steinschaf

Austrian sheep breed, raised in the Alps for their wool, meat and for vegetation management. They are a rare breed, weighing from 90 to 180 lbs.

Coopworth
Coopworth

Raised in New Zealand, they produce a wool ranging from 30-35 microns. They are also bred in Australia, Europe and the US.

All images courtesy of WikiMedia Commons