What are the Most Popular Breeds of Sheep?

Eleanor Newman

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.

There are over 1,000 different breeds of sheep in the world.
There are over 1,000 different breeds of sheep in the world.

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.

Believed to have poor depth perception, sheep have been known to stampede off cliffs when panicked.
Believed to have poor depth perception, sheep have been known to stampede off cliffs when panicked.

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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.

White-faced sheep tend to produce better wool.
White-faced sheep tend to produce better wool.

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.

The Romney sheep is known for its ability to produced large quantities of milk.
The Romney sheep is known for its ability to produced large quantities of milk.

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.

Merino sheep provide high-quality wool.
Merino sheep provide high-quality wool.

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Discussion Comments

vogueknit17

@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.

BambooForest

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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