Sheep or Goat?
If, like me, you shop eBay for goat and sheep memorabilia, you know that sellers often mistake sheep for goats and vice versa. They look a lot alike in many ways but there are obvious differences too.
Goats’ tails stick up unless they’re sick or frightened. Goat tails are naturally short, with a cute fringe of longer hair at the sides. Sheep’s tails hang down, always. Most breeds of wool sheep are born with long, woolly tails that are docked (shortened) when they’re young lambs to help prevent flystrike, a nasty condition whereby blowflies lay their eggs in the wool on a sheep’s manure-encrusted tail. When the eggs hatch into hungry maggots,
the maggots secrete enzymes that liquefy their host’s flesh and create an open wound. Nasty! However, hair sheep like Katahdins, Dorpers, St. Croix, and Barbados Blackbellies have hair instead of wool on their tails. Wool sheep from the Northern European short-tail group like Icelandics, Finnsheep, Romanovs, Soay, and Shetlands have short fluke-shaped tails, broad at the base and tapering to a hair-covered tip. None of these sheep breeds are traditionally docked but their tails hang straight down and can’t be mistaken for the tails of goats.
Goats of both sexes can have beards, though not every goat has one. Sheep never have beards, although rams of most hair breeds have manes consisting on longer hair on their shoulders and their lower necks.
Most goats are born with horn buds that develop into horns unless they’re disbudded as kids. Disbudding consists of burning ready-to-emerge horn buds with a hot disbudding iron. It isn’t a cosmetic process; horned goats are prone to getting their heads stuck in fences and most goats tend to use
their horns to bully their herdmates, so dairy breeds but not most meat goats are usually disbudded. Polled (naturally hornless) goats are fairly common in dairy breeds and don’t require disbudding. Sheep come in polled and horned breeds. In some horned breeds only rams have horns, in others both sexes have them. The horns of most goats sweep back and then up or out, while horns on ewe sheep
grow up and back, and rams’ horns usually curve into loops at the sides of their faces. Because of the difference in goat and sheep horn structure, lambs cannot be disbudded.
Bucks have the charming habit of spraying urine on the backs of their front legs
and into their faces while they’re in rut (girl goats find this sexy). During rut, scent glands near their horns or where their horns would be if they’re polled or disbudded, emit a powerful aroma too. Rams don’t stink when they’re in rut (score one for sheep!). However, rams’ faces become broader and wrinkly in late summer, as rut approaches. This doesn’t happen to goat bucks.
Goats are hairy, sheep are woolly. This, however, is not a given. True
hair sheep like Katahdins and Soay have coarse hair coats year round and as winter approaches, they grow a soft, fluffy undercoat under that. Shedders, a sub-type of hair sheep grow short wool. Both types of hair sheep spontaneously shed their winter coats, whereas wool sheep must be shorn at least once a year. To confound things, Angora goats grow long, lustrous, non-shedding locks of fiber; many people mistake Angoras for sheep.
A sheep’s upper lip is divided by a distinct, deep groove. While there is a shallow crease in a goat’s upper lip, it’s only superficial.
Sheep have distinct tear-shaped scent glands at the lower corners of their eyes as well as scent glands between their toes; goats don’t.
Sheep have 54 chromosomes whereas goats have 60. This is why sheep and goats are rarely inter-fertile. According to a study, “The Interbreeding of Sheep and Goats”, that first appeared in the April 1997 issue of the Canadian Veterinary Journal, rams can successfully impregnate does but the resulting fetuses die at 5 to 10 weeks after conception. Bucks cannot successfully impregnate ewes, though they’ll certainly try. Once in a blue moon a geep is conceived and carried to term but they are very, very rare indeed. Geep can also be produced in the laboratory, in which case they’re called chimera.