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.