Raising Horned Sheep
The Lavender Fleece is dedicated to preserving the ancient
- and aesthetically beautiful -
Horned Icelandic sheep.
Icelandic sheep (both rams and ewes) can be horned or polled. Mixing the horn and polled genetics results sometimes in scurred animals (see ewe at right).We have made the decision to breed - for the most part - for homozygous horns (breeding horned ewes to horned rams).
     We have occasionally brought in ewes that were polled
(see black ewe bottom right photo) because they had other special genetics that we were looking for at the time (superb fleece or conformation or an outcross line). After years of breeding Icelandic sheep, we believe that it is best to breed horned sheep to horned sheep and polled sheep to polled sheep. Since the horned genetics are recessive to the polled genetics, it is important to help preserve the horned trait. If breeders continued to breed polled sheep to horned sheep, eventually the horn genetics would be lost. Because the lamb inherits polled/horned genetics from each of its parents, it is possible to breed horn or polled traits into a line in a few generations of breeding.
     Horns consist of an internal bony structure that continues to grow upward and outward from the base of the skull. The internal structure of this "live" horn is made up of blood vessels. If a horn is snapped off when a lamb is small, it will bleed profusely
(and should be treated with some type of fly spray to keep it from attracting flies), but then the horn "bone" will continue to grow. There is an outer "sheath" made of keratin, which is what gives the horns their unusual color patterns and the interesting and beautiful grooves that develop over time. The Icelandic horns are very beautiful and can be a value added product for a sheep farm. We offer horns and handmade horn buttons for sale.
     Raising horned sheep can cause some management issues for the shepherd. This is mostly when the horns end up too close to the face and need trimming. It is frustrating when trying to breed for good horns to have ram lambs that were exhibiting nice wide horns at 6 months, then a year later, have horns that are too close to the face and need to be trimmed. If a ram is a really good stud, with everything else about him what we want, then we will make the commitment to keeping him healthy by trimming his horns appropriately. We found a camping saw
(which is a wire on two handles) works well for sawing the horns, and there is also an O.B. wire saw that works. We have also used a hacksaw, but are finding the wire works better. If possible, we prefer to trim the horn vertically, on the inside, to narrow it away from the face/cheek area. This is preferable to taking the entire horn off across horizontally. We've had some super rams that had great horns for 4-6 years that ended up needing them cut later because the sheer bulk and circumference of the horn gets so massive that it may end up touching the face where it never had in the past. If we have a good ram that we want to use for breeding, or if we have found a bloodline that we know throws horns that too close than is good for the ram, we will try to breed him to a ewe who has horns that flare out nice and wide to try to correct the problem. Ewe horns vary greatly in shape, size, and angle of growth. So a ewe that has horns that flare straight back over her shoulders, may need to be bred to a ram with wide horns that flare away from the head.
    Occasionally horns will get caught in fences or feeders. We have also had to unlock two rams from each other, when they have gotten their horns too close to each other and gotten locked together.
(See photo at right).
     One benefit to raising horned animals is that
HORNS HELP DISSIPATE HEAT resulting in sheep that can better handle the stress of summer heat and humidity. If you take hold of horns in the summer, you will feel that they are very hot and this heat dissipating function helps to cool the animal. This is an important consideration, especially for those who raise sheep in climates with very hot and humid summers. Unfortunately, this same thermo regulating characteristic that benefits the horned sheep in the heat of summer, can cause problems in the winter. Rams with large horns will lose heat through the horns in the cold weather, and thus be more susceptible to chill and heat loss during cold months. One way to help with this is to not shear the rams in the fall, if you have horned rams. Rams will lose body condition in the fall /winter months due to the rut season, so are particularly vulnerable during this time frame. So we've found that not shearing them in the fall helps them maintain condition better through the winter months.
     Even though some will argue that the horns should not be used to hold or lead sheep, with our
adult horned sheep (never grab the horns of lambs or yearling sheep, as they are not firmly attached at the base yet and may break off), we find their horns do make good handles. I can easily and quietly catch a horned sheep at the feeder if I need to do something with an individual animal, without having to corral the entire flock. All sheep will balk at being caught and handled, whether or not they have horns, so saying they will "fight" you if you hold them by the horns is irrelevant. Their preference will always be to not be handled whether they are horned or polled! We do caution people not to catch or hold lambs under a year of age by their horns. It takes time for the horns to become secure to the skull. Being sure to breed horned to horned will result in progressively better horns that will be stronger and more secure.
     Please note that lambs will develop horns at an early age. In our experience homozygous (meaning two genes for horns) horned lambs will show horn development by the time they reach about 10 lbs. The ewe lambs will sometimes have very tiny "nubbins"at birth, which will begin to grow out and be visible by the time they are 20 lbs. or about 2-3 weeks of age. Homozygous horned sheep do not usually develop horns when they are 6 months to a year old. If a young ram appears to be polled or scurred, and later develops horns, it may be that nutritional/growth issues impeded the horn growth until he was larger and healthier. However, polled sheep can develop scurs, months later, that can become dangerous by growing back into the skull.
     All in all - don't be afraid to purchase or raise horned sheep. Judge your animals on overall size and conformation, on fleece and productivity and raise the animals you want to raise, whether they are horned, or polled, or perhaps some of each.


Another article on horned sheep


and yet another horn article


.
ADDRESSING SOME CONCERNS ABOUT HORNS
Are horned sheep more dangerous than polled sheep?
- When being handled, horned sheep may swing their heads in self-defense, so a wise shepherd will be aware and hopefully avoid accidental injury. Especially watch your knees.  I have observed that rams at hay feeders who are especially aggressive over food, may swing their heads, and thus their horns, and it can cause injury to the ribs or bellies of the animals next to them.
     On any breeding farm, you must beware of - and always wary of -
any intact male animal, whether it is a sheep, a pig, a cow, a llama or a horse. Never turn your back on breeding age male animals, especially during the rut season. A polled or a horned ram can become territorial about his ewes and must always be watched. A wise and aware shepherd will learn to stay clear of wide sweeping horns on rams should they choose to raise horned sheep. But, our horned rams usually have injuries to their foreheads, just above their eyes and along the bridge of their nose, as they usually battle by hitting head-on. If you watch two rams fighting, they are putting their foreheads down and "charging" one another. Whether they are horned or polled does not change how they fight. They usually hit each other with their foreheads. Occasionally rams who are standing side by side may thrust their heads at each other and there is the possibility of their horns locking. We always recommend checking on your flock at least once a day, so should you find rams in a horn lock, you should be able to untangle them if you are keeping a regular eye on your flock.

People worry that horned sheep will get tangled in fencing.
Sometimes horned lambs will stick their heads through our cattle panels (stock panel) or woven wire fences, but they usually manage to get their horns "unstuck." When their heads grow big enough that they no longer can stick them through the panels, this problem is usually corrected. In talking with a friend who uses electronet fencing, she mentioned she's only lost polled sheep to tangling in the fencing, and not her horned ones. We don't use net fencing, so I cannot answer to how often horned sheep will tangle their horns in it. I did have one 5 month old ewe lamb hang herself in a cattle panel fencing when she was trying to reach grass on the other wide that was tall. Her horns got caught and she died, I believe, of a broken neck, since she had not been in the fence for very long. I was only gone for an hour and when I came home, found her hanging in the fence.

Horned lambs cause lambing problems.
The horn buds on lambs are proportionate to the size of the lamb. Icelandic lambs should be in the 5-7 lb. range at birth. Careful feeding and nutritional management of the gestating ewe should result in lambs in this size range. Lambs that are 8-11 lbs. (or bigger) at birth will have proportionately larger horn buds. But there is also another thing to keep an eye on -- the actual width of the head of the ram, whether he has horns or not. Very wide heads can cause birthing issues in both polled and horned lines. Breeding for narrower heads is a good idea.

We have found that our ewes, when fed properly so that they are not overfat in late gestation (resulting in large lambs) generally do not have problems giving birth to their horned ram lambs. If we do have to assist a ewe lamb giving birth to her first horned ram lamb,
(most problems come from single ram lambs that grow over 8 lbs. in-utero) we do not hold this against the ewe. The worse case scenario is usually a single ram lamb, born to a one winter ewe, that gets over sized and has large horn buds. We sometimes have to, gently ease the tissues up over the horn buds so he can be born without damage to the ewe.
I found these two rams locked together in the field and had to assist them in getting untangled. We had to trim the Mjaldurson's horns when he was five years old.. Previously his horns were nice and wide, but in his fifth summer, the horns became too wide and were pressing onto his jaw and cheek. You can see in this photo above (at the end of the white - cut - locked horn) where the "vein" is and what part will bleed when you trim a horn and cut into the blood supply. If the horns do bleed after trimming, you can apply "blood stop" powder, or even plain white flour to stem the blood flow and get it to coagulate. Then we spray it with "Blu Kote" spray to prevent fly strike.