11 Distinctive Breeds of Sheep

Maret Hosemann
Maret Hosemann / Maret Hosemann

The Chinese New Year ushers in the Year of the Sheep, which is sometimes referred to as the Year of the Goat, as the Chinese character for both animals is the same. You may think of sheep as something to count if you can’t fall asleep, but they are grown all over the world for wool, meat, milk, and to show off at livestock shows. Sheep come in an amazing variety, as I found while looking through pictures. I just had to learn more about some of those different-looking breeds.

1. Jacob

Photograph by Flickr user nichole.

The Jacob sheep is a fairly rare breed that can grow up to six horns! Or as few as two, but four horns is most common. According to the Jacob Sheep Breeders Association, a finely-bred Jacob should have eye patches that extend over the cheeks and a white blaze, a long tail, and white wool with patches of darker color, usually black. They were originally kept on high-class estates just for their looks. Now they are used for wool, meat, leather, and their unusual horns, which can be made into a variety of things.

2. Najdi

Photograph by Slmcom

Najdi sheep are raised in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. The best of the breed are very tall and have long, silky hair and drooping ears. They are typically black with white faces and feet. They are mostly raised for wool and milk, and are very popular at livestock shows

3. Balwen Welsh Mountain

Photograph by Eric Jones

The sheep pictured above looks as if it’s trying to be a border collie, but those are the distinctive markings of a Balwen Welsh Mountain sheep. The breed originates in the Tywi Valley area of Wales. It was almost wiped out during a particularly bad winter in 1947, but the breed has bounced back. According to the Balwen Welsh Mountain Sheep Society, these sheep are small, healthy, and hardy, and they are so cooperative that you don’t need a dog to herd them.

4. Awassi

Photograph by SuperJew.

Awassi sheep are popular in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and other parts of the Middle East. The males can grow up to six horns. Awassi sheep have “fat tails,” meaning they carry a layer of fat in their tails that can get in the way of milking. They are well adapted to desert life, with thin but fluffy wool that shields them from the sun’s effects, and that traps a layer of air to act as an insulator from both heat and cold. Awassi sheep even regulate their pulse rates according to the temperature! They are used for meat and wool, but more for milk than anything else.

5. Badger Face Welsh Mountain

Photograph by Melanie Major.

Like the Balwen Welsh Mountain sheep, the Badger Face Welsh Mountain sheep is a breed native to Wales with distinctive face markings. According to the Badger Face Welsh Mountain Sheep Society, they come in two colors: Torddu, which is white with a black belly and black face stripes that resemble a badger’s, and Torwen, which is black with a white belly. The sheep pictured above is a Torddu. Both are small and known for their good meat.

6. Zwartbles

Photograph by Andy F. 

Zwartbles sheep not only have a unique appearance but an awesome name from the Netherlands. They are good-natured, lively, and are very maternal in caring for their lambs. The Zwartbles Sheep Association says the standard for the breed is that they have thick, springy, black fleece (which turns brownish in the sun) and a white blaze. They also have white socks and white tips on their tails. Zwartbles are a rather large sheep. The breed almost died out in the ‘70s, with only between 250-500 on farms in 1978. The breed was saved by wool spinners who wanted that dark wool, and the numbers rebounded. In later decades, they were exported to the UK, where the Zwartble population increased greatly.

7. Bluefaced Leicester

Photograph by Magic Foundry.

There are three breeds of English Leicester Longwool sheep, developed by Robert Bakewell in the 1700s. The Blueface was first bred in the late 1800s. The blue cast of the sheep’s face is due to dark skin with white hair.

8. Racka

Photograph by Flickr user Maret Hosemann.

Racka sheep originate from Hungary. Their distinction is their long horns, which can grow up to 20 inches long on rams, and just a bit shorter on ewes. Their wool ranges through different shades of brown to black, and the tips can turn red by sun exposure or gray with age. Racka sheep are hardy, and are prized crossbreeders for this trait.

9. Faeroes

Photograph by Tofts.

The sheep of the Faroe Islands have been isolated from mainland UK sheep for a thousand years, at least from the time of the Vikings. There are around 70,000 Faeroes sheep on the islands today. Faeroes are small, hardy, and wear a thick, warm coat of wool as they graze the windy islands. They are raised for their wool, which is still hand-spun and knitted by individuals in the Faroe Islands, as well as sold to clothing companies that use the cachet of the islands to sell sweaters.

10. Manx Loaghtan

Photograph by geni.

The Manx Loaghtan sheep is a rare and ancient breed of sheep from the Isle of Man. The word “loaghtan” means mouse-brown, although the sheep come in several colors. It is another polycerate breed, meaning they can grow two, four, or six horns. The breed was almost wiped out in the 1950s, but has bounced back due to conservation efforts and interest in the sheep’s high quality wool. Manx Loaghtan sheep have been introduced to the Isle of Jersey to fill the ecological niche left by the extinct Jersey sheep.

11. Wensleydale

Photograph by Flickr user EadaoinFlynn.

Wensleydale sheep are large, with blue faces, but their most distinctive feature is their long, curly wool that resembles sausage curls, or dreadlocks from a distance. Most Wensleydale sheep are white, but an occasional black Wensleydale is born when both parents carry the recessive gene for black wool. Their wool is the most expensive in Britain, so Wensleydale are popular for crossbreeding as well as for wool and meat.