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What are the Most Popular Breeds of Sheep?

By Eleanor Newman
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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There are over 1,000 different breeds of sheep worldwide, ranging from the Afrino to the Zwartble. Not surprisingly, sheep breeds can be confusing to navigate. Whether a person is breeding sheep for excellent mutton, fine wool, or delicious milk, knowing the animal's purpose makes finding the perfect breed of sheep much easier. A good rule of thumb is the black-faced breeds grow quickly and are usually raised for meat, whereas white-faced sheep produce high-quality wool. The most popular sheep breeds include the Southdown, Romney, Merino, and Rambouillet.

Medium-wool breeds of sheep are primarily used for meat. One of the most venerated of these breeds is the Southdown, known for its exceptionally good quality mutton. Suffolk sheep will range far and wide for the best grazing, and their meat is said to reveal subtleties of flavor not found in other breeds. Cheviot sheep and their cousin the North Country Cheviot are hardy sheep that produce good-quality wool.

Long-wool sheep breeds do best in a cool, wet climate like that of Great Britain and New Zealand. Their wool is coarse and clean, and is typically used in hands-on rugs, carpets, and coats. Cotswolds and Lincolns produce lustrous fleeces. One of the most popular of the long-wool breeds of sheep is the Romney, prized for its fine wool and for producing a good deal of milk.

Most people have heard of Merino wool, the exquisitely soft fiber that's used in high-quality sweaters and other garments. Merino comes from several different sheep breeds, like the Spanish Merino and the Rambouillet. Fine-wool sheep do well in arid climates, and are often found in Australia, the American Southwest, and Southern Africa. These varieties comprise about half of the global sheep population, and produce excellent-quality wool.

Combining the best of two gene pools, crossbred breeds of sheep tend to be hardier than their purebred counterparts. Corriedales combine the meat production of Lincolns and the fine wool of Merinos, making it a popular breed that excels in commercial production. Columbia and Targhee sheep breeds do well in rugged conditions. Scottish Highland sheep are very common in Britain, where they are raised for their mutton and springy fleece.

Although not as popular, it's important to consider the value of less-common breeds. These sheep help preserve genetic diversity, and often have historic importance. The Navajo Churro, for example, is the oldest sheep breed in America and can grow up to four horns.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most popular breed of sheep for wool production?

The Merino is renowned for its fine, high-quality wool and is arguably the most popular breed for wool production globally. Originating from Spain, Merinos are prized for their wool's softness and versatility, which is ideal for garments. According to the International Wool Textile Organisation, Merino wool accounts for about 80% of the world's fine wool used in textiles.

Which sheep breed is known for its meat quality?

The Suffolk breed, with its distinctive black face and legs, is highly regarded for its meat quality. Known for rapid growth and muscular build, Suffolk sheep produce lean, tender meat that is sought after in markets. The American Sheep Industry Association recognizes Suffolks as one of the leading meat breeds in the United States.

What breed of sheep is best for dairy production?

The East Friesian breed is considered the best for dairy production, boasting the highest milk yield among sheep breeds. Native to Northern Germany, East Friesians have been selectively bred for their milking traits. According to the Dairy Sheep Association of North America, they can produce up to 1,000-1,500 pounds of milk per lactation.

Which sheep breed is most suited for challenging climates?

The Dorper breed, developed in South Africa, is well-suited for harsh climates, particularly arid regions. Dorpers are known for their adaptability, hardiness, and ability to thrive with minimal management. They are also non-seasonal breeders, making them a versatile choice for farmers, as noted by the Dorper Sheep Breeders' Society of South Africa.

What is a popular dual-purpose sheep breed?

The Hampshire breed is a popular dual-purpose option, valued for both its meat and wool. Hampshires are recognized for their rapid growth and good carcass quality, as well as for producing a medium-grade wool. The National Hampshire Sheep Association highlights their versatility and popularity among both purebred and commercial sheep producers.

Are there any sheep breeds that are particularly good for beginners?

The Polypay breed is often recommended for beginners due to its docile nature and ease of handling. Developed in the United States, Polypays are a dual-purpose breed, known for their prolific breeding and good mothering abilities. They provide a steady supply of meat and wool, making them an excellent choice for novice sheep farmers, as suggested by the American Polypay Sheep Association.

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Discussion Comments

By vogueknit17 — On Jul 17, 2011

@BambooForest- I have knitted for a long time, but even I don't know everything about breeds of sheep and what types of wool they yield. However, if you really are interested, either for your own knowledge or even for raising sheep yourself, many wool companies are happy to talk about what types of sheep they have and other details.

People who want to raise their own might even be able to get jobs at places like this to learn the trade, I've heard of it happening sometimes.

By BambooForest — On Jul 17, 2011

I knit a lot, but didn't realize there were so many different varieties of sheep that might provide my wool. I especially thought that specific types like merino came from one type of sheep, either that or were based on the wool's treatment instead. Clearly I have a lot to learn about sheep breeders and types of sheep.

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