Natural History

Domesticated sheep (Ovis aries) have been used in agriculture for thousands of years for their milk, meat, and wool. They originated in Mesopotamia around 10–800 B.C. and spread throughout Europe and eventually to the New World. As sheep spread worldwide, different breeds were developed depending on climate, terrain and type of industry for which they were used. Today, there are 1,000 breeds worldwide, with 50 breeds in the United States alone.

Maymont is home to Shetland and Blackface sheep, both of which you would find on a Virginia farm. Shetlands are a small breed originating in the Shetland Isles of Scotland, and retain many of the characteristics of wild sheep. The Blackface sheep is an old breed also originating from Scotland; today, they make up the majority of sheep in the United Kingdom, and are known for their ability to produce higher volumes of milk, meat, and, most importantly, preferred wool for the textile industry.

Fun Facts

  • Sheep will learn their names, and come when you call them.
  • They have four ‘stomachs’! Sheep are ruminants which means they are able to digest tough plant materials.
  • Sheep manure is great for gardening because it has more nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium than cow or horse manure.
  • Many European cheeses are made from sheep’s milk: roquefort, romano, and pecorino are a few.
  • A female sheep is known as an ewe. A male is called a ram and a castrated male is called a wether. A young sheep (usually less than 14 months old) is called a lamb.
  • Maymont’s sheep enjoy eating alfalfa pellets from our guests’ hands!