Sheep are animals found all around the world as these even-toed ungulates are typically kept as livestock. There are over 1 billion sheep in the world, and domestic sheep are the most populous out of this genus.

A cute little lamb
A cute little lamb

It is thought that sheep were descended from wild mouflon from Asia and Europe. It was one of the earliest animals in history to be domesticated for agricultural purposes. They have used since the beginning of history for their meat, fleece/wool, and their milk. Sheep are well loved for their meat and there are specific terms for different sheep meat. Lamb is from younger sheep, while mutton is from older sheep. They are also raised as dairy animals, for scientific purposes, or for their pelts.

In fact, sheep wool is the most widely animal fibre used in the world, with it being used in various items such as clothing and carpeting. Sheep wool is obtained via shearing and is commonplace in sheep husbandry. This is practised throughout most of the world since early civilisation. In modern day times, New Zealand, Australia, central and southern South American countries, and the British Isles are most closely associated with sheep production.

Raising sheep has always been a key past-time in farming history. As a result, there are some unique terms which do vary by dialect and region. The original word for sheep originated from Old English, and are used to describe the animal in both a singular and plural manner. A group of sheep is called a herd, flock, or a mob. Adult female sheep are known as ewes, while intact males are known as tups or rams. Castrated male sheep are known as wethers, and young sheep are known as lambs. There are also many other more specific words used for this animal’s various life stages, and these words are related to age, shearing, or lambing.

As they have been a key animal in history, they are deeply entrenched in human culture. Due to this, they are used in symbolism and modern language. For example, sheep (as livestock) are associated with pastoral and Arcadian imagery. There are also many myths that use sheep as a figure, such as the Golden Fleece. Major religions including Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all have sheep featured. Non-western religions and philosophies also include sheep in their stories. In addition, both modern and ancient religious rituals use sheep as as animal of sacrifice.

A ram is a symbol of strength and virility
A ram is a symbol of strength and virility

In the English language, a ‘sheep’ is someone who is easily led, timid, or perhaps even stupid. However, male sheep are used as a symbol of power and virility – quite the opposite of a timid and stupid character! This symbol has been used for the Dodge Ram and the St. Louis Rams. They are also used in many nursery rhymes and fables such as ‘Baa, baa, Black Sheep’, ‘Little Bo Peep’, and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. Songs and poems have also been featured for metaphorical purposes.

One of the most common sleeping aids is to count sheep. There are also some ancient systems of counting sheep that are present today. These include “black sheep” which is derived from a recessive trait where a black lamb can be born to a white flock. They were considered undesirable as they were not as commercially viable as white wool.

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