Wild sheep survive quite well without shearing, as they shed their lighter wool seasonally.
However, domesticated sheep, such as the popular Merino sheep, with thick, heavy wool, depend on humans to shear them.
If adult sheep are not sheared, their wool will build up, causing skin problems, limiting movement, and becoming hot and heavy. Sheep can become overheated in the summer and die. Several parasitic species such as ticks, lice, mites, and maggots will hide and thrive in the wool, making them very ill.
Domesticated sheep are so relieved to be sheared they jump around and frolic afterward, freed from their heavy coat.
Wild sheep rub and scratch themselves on branches and leave wool tags behind, no doubt feeling much better themselves.
For more about sheep and shearing, keep reading!
What Happens to Sheep Who Don’t Get Sheared?
Parasites and Disease
Even if there is no market for wool, sheep farmers pay for commercial shearing to prevent skin disease and parasites.
Ticks, lice, mites, and the maggots which cause fly strike are attracted to the warm, dark, moist environment under the wool.
Fly strike is painful and sometimes fatal, with the larvae basically eating the sheep alive.
Although the shearing process is unpleasant, it is necessary to shear sheep to make their skin as inhospitable as possible to these parasites.
Infections such as Staphylococcus or Dermatophilus congolensis also flourish in damp, dirty conditions in thick wool.
Bacterial dermatitis creates hard scabs and lifts the wool from the skin, creating a lumpy look.
Wool Blindness and Limited Movement
Sheep are vulnerable to developing “wool blindness,” where the wool has overgrown to impair the sheep’s sight, sometimes fatal in a prey animal.
Not shearing ewes can cause lambs not to be able to find their mother’s teats in all her wool, and the lambs starve to death.
Sheep will also become so heavy with wool they will have difficulty grazing, walking, or running.
They will not be able to stay on pace with the flock, missing out on its social structure and inherent protection from common sheep predators.
How Did We End Up Shearing Sheep?
Millenia ago, when sheep were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq and the surrounding area, farmers would harvest the soft wool undercoat by hand from the coarser guard hairs of the sheep’s coat, a tedious process called “roux.”
After centuries of breeding for high-quality, rapidly growing wool, sheep farmers are now obliged to shear their livestock annually, a frightening-seeming process for the sheep and arduous for the shearer.
As there is less of a demand for wool production with the invention of modern textiles, some farmers in Britain are working with a breed of sheep, the so-called Exlana sheep, which molt their wool in the spring, bringing domestic sheep on par with their wild brethren once again.
While this breed is becoming known, the livelihood of British sheep shearers is not yet threatened, the Exlana not even making the top ten list for Britain.
Competitive sheep shearing is still en vogue in fairs and places where sheep are raised, such as Australia.
Australian shearers can earn up to six figures a year; guns, or shearers able to process quickly, can earn just shy of $300,000.
Related: Can you use horse clippers on sheep?
How Do Wild Sheep Survive?
While most domesticated sheep have been bred for wool production, wild sheep have not.
Wild sheep have enough wool to survive their rugged environments but not excessive amounts, as it would hinder them in hot weather and encounters with predators.
Some wild sheep are long-haired rather than woolly, though the Dall sheep and the Stone sheep produce wool.
Their wool, with its lanolin oil, gives them unique protection from cold weather, wind, and rain.
Wild sheep shed their wool naturally and rub their bodies against trees to get rid of the extra fleece, leaving wool tags.
Related: Why do sheep lose their fleece?
Wild sheep breeds are tough and hardy, foraging for food and evading predators in rough and rocky terrain in both cold climates and warm.
They are larger and more rugged, one of the largest species being the North American Bighorn, a ram weighing 300 pounds.
The six recognized species of wild sheep are:
- argali (O. ammon)
- bighorn sheep (O. canadensis)
- Dall sheep (O. dalli)
- mouflon (O. aries)
- snow sheep (O. nivicola)
- urial (O. orientalis)
Argali sheep range in western East Asia.
Bighorn sheep roam in western North America, especially in the Rocky Mountain area, from Alaska to Mexico.
Dall sheep live in the mountain ranges of Alaska.
The mouflon sheep, considered to be the ancestor of them all, are native to the Caspian region from eastern Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.
Snow sheep inhabit the mountainous regions of northeastern Siberia.
The Urial sheep is native to Central and South Asia.
How Do Sheep Survive in the Wild If They Need to Be Sheared?
Domestic sheep require shearing at least annually and are at a disadvantage when they escape and live in the wild.
Over the last few years, there have been several stories in the press about escaped Merino sheep being found.
The Merino sheep, known for its fine, soft wool, produce from 10 to 40 pounds of wool a year, which continuously grows.
One Australian merino sheep, Chris, had not been sheared for several years and was carrying around a record-setting 89 pounds of wool when he was finally caught!
Chris was hampered in his movement, and his hind legs suffered permanent damage from carrying around the extra weight, making it even more amazing wild animals had not caught and eaten him.
Several breeds of wild sheep live in the wild quite comfortably and do not need shearing, although even the oldest domestic breeds of sheep prefer shearing to molt, such as the Ouessant sheep.
Further Reading: Wild sheep and how they survive