There are around 36 million sheep in the UK. Half of these are adults used for breeding and 17 million are lambs (sheep under one year of age). Sheep are mainly farmed for meat (lamb or mutton). They are also used to produce wool and some milk. Sheep farming produces around 300,000 tonnes of meat representing 85% of the sheep meat eaten in the UK, it is the largest sheep industry in Europe. Most sheep are slaughtered as lambs.
There are more than sixty different breads of sheep in Britain alone, with the Scottish Blackface breed being the most common.
The average breeding life of female sheep (ewe) is up to fifteen years; however the vast majority are slaughtered by the age of six years. Ewes become sexually mature at around 7 – 9 months. A ewe’s gestation period is about five months. Lambs are generally born in the spring/summer when the weather is warmer and grass is growing, with annual lambing (every twelve months) being most common.
In common with other farm animals, sheep suffer from a wide range of diseases such as lameness, mastitis, sheep scap and toxoplasmosis. Foot rot is one of the main causes of lameness.
Wool accounts for 5 – 10% of the total value of the ewe. Most British wool is used for coarse fabrics such as carpets, with over 65% of the clip being used in carpet manufacture. Native breeds, such as Scottish Blackface, Herdwick and Cheviot, grow wool which is naturally designed to withstand harsh winds, driving rain and snow. The UK produces 1% of the worlds raw wool, approximately 50,000 tonnes per year. The entire fleece is sheared in one piece. Sheep have been selectively bred to produce a thick fleece and are sheared early summer to prevent heatstroke. Other by-products derived from sheep include leather and lanolin. Lanolin (wool fat) acts as a water-proofing wax and is used widely in cosmetics.