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
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.