Sheep are known for their long woolly coats that can be used for making clothes for people. The sheep are sheared once or twice a year to harvest the wool. Some may inquire whether shearing is necessary for sheep and their natural process of shedding wool.
Wild sheep have a natural wool growth cycle, where the wool is shed once or twice a year. They assist with the shedding by rubbing themselves on tree trunks and bushes. Domesticated sheep have been selectively bred to have an altered wool growth cycle which means they do not naturally shed.
Most animals are well-equipped to cope with their coats. However, sheep have distinctive coats, and they appear to require shearing consistently. Is this a necessity, or can sheep shed their wool naturally?
How Do Wild Sheep Shed Naturally?
Wild sheep do not have long woolly coats like domesticated sheep. They tend to have shorter coats with a soft insulating undercoat and an overcoat made up of coarse, longer guard hairs. The overcoat helps to keep the sheep dry and free of debris.
To understand how wild sheep lose their wool naturally, it is necessary to understand the way that wool grows.
Wool Or Hair Growth Cycle
In biology, the terms "wool" and "hair" can be used interchangeably since wool is a type of hair. Hair has several stages in a growth cycle.
The initial stage is the growing or active phase of hair growth. It is called the anagen phase. The cells in the hair root divide and produce more hair cells. As a result, each hair grows longer during the anagen phase, with the total length possible being governed by genetics.
The second stage is the catagen phase. During this phase, the growth stops, and the blood supply to the hair cell is eliminated.
The third phase is the resting or telogen phase. Each strand of wool or hair remains attached to the shaft, but there is no growth or activity in the hair cells.
The exogen phase is the final phase, where individual hair strands loosen in the follicle. The strands fall out, allowing new hair strands to take their place. The exogen phase is when shedding occurs.
Wild Sheep Have An Unaltered Hair Growth Cycle
Wild sheep have a hair growth cycle that has not been altered. They go through the stages of hair growth and have one or two shedding periods a year. Wild sheep typically lose their thick winter coat in early spring. The hair is in the exogen phase and falls out.
A second shedding period may occur in late fall to allow a thicker winter wool coat to grow. The climate and type of sheep influence whether they have one or two annual shedding periods.
When the sheep begin to shed, the loose hair makes them itchy. So they scratch themselves on tree trunks, rocks, and bushes. The rough surfaces snag the wool, and it is pulled out, hastening the shedding process.
Do Domesticated Sheep Breeds Shed?
For thousands of years, humans have raised sheep and selectively bred them to produce dense, soft, and fluffy coats, which we now refer to as wool.
Sheep that grew these long coats had an altered hair growth cycle. Their coats continue in the anagen phase indefinitely, growing longer and longer each season. However, some of these sheep may enter the catagen and telogen phases but never reach the exogen phase, where the wool strands fall out.
The result is that the sheep have woolly coats that become thicker and longer each year. These sheep must be sheared as they will never shed their wool. It is cruel and can become fatal if the sheep are not sheared.
Wool sheep grow approximately eleven pounds (five kilograms) of wool annually. Depending on the breed, meat and dairy sheep may produce less than this, but they all grow excessive wool.
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What Happens If A Sheep Is Not Sheared?
Sheep that are not sheared become overburdened by the weight of their coats. They can suffer from heart complications. Overheating becomes a constant risk, and the sheep can die in hot summer weather.
Unsheared sheep may be unable to walk and sometimes cannot see because the wool grows over their forehead into their eyes.
Baarak was a sheep that escaped into the Australian wilderness and was not sheared for five to seven years. When he was rescued, his life was in danger due to the strain on his heart. His fleece measured a whopping seventy-seven pounds (thirty-five kilograms) when it was sheared.
Do Any Domesticated Sheep Lose Their Wool Naturally?
Most domesticated sheep do not shed naturally, but eight breeds have wool with natural growth cycles.
- Dorper Sheep from South Africa were developed in arid regions. They have short woolly coats that they lose naturally.
- West African Dwarf Sheep have hairy coats that look more like goats. Their coats are thin and shed naturally.
- St Croix Sheep are a rare breed developed in the Caribbean. They grow short, dense coats in cold climates but have a natural hair growth cycle.
- Red Maasai Sheep is another African breed of sheep. They have a short coat that varies very little, as Kenya's seasonal temperature variation is minimal. These sheep have a normal exogen phase and lose their hair.
- Black-headed Persian Sheep originated in Somalia. They have a soft, hairy coat that goes through normal growth stages.
- Romanov Sheep were bred in Russia. These sheep grow thick coats to protect them from the cold Russian winters. Despite this, they shed their wool naturally in summer.
- American Blackbelly Sheep have horns and short coats. They do not need to be sheared as they lose their coats naturally.
- Katahdin Sheep have a short wool coat similar to Dorpers. They were developed in Maine and lose their wool naturally in summer.
Wild sheep and a few domesticated sheep breeds have natural hair growth cycles, allowing them to shed their coats naturally. However, most domesticated sheep breeds do not shed their wool naturally and must be sheared to keep them healthy.