Long tails
Lamb tails

Docked market lambs
Properly docked lambs

Rat tail
A rat-tail
East Friesian

Rahmani sheep
A fat tail or rump
Egyptian Rahmani

 

 

In two shakes of a lamb's tail


Tails are natural
Tails are a natural part of sheep. Lambs are born with tails. The length of a lamb's tail is usually half-way between the length of its mother's tail and its father's tail. In fact, tail length is a highly heritable trait. Up to 84 percent of the differences in sheep tail length is due to genetics.

The purpose of the sheep's tail is to protect the sheep's anus, vulva, and udder from weather extremes. Sheep lift their tails when they defecate and use their tails, to some extent, to scatter their feces.

No tails!
Under modern sheep production systems, tails are usually docked (shortened) to prevent fecal matter from accumulating on the back side of the sheep, which can result in fly strike (wool maggots). Left untreated, fly strike can be fatal as the maggots eat away at the sheep's flesh. Tail docking also makes it easier to shear the sheep and harvest for meat. The tail does not interfere with breeding or lambing.

There are different methods that can be used to dock the tails of lambs. The most common method is to put a rubber band (ring) around the tail. When this method is used, it is recommended that lambs be docked at a young age (1 to 7 days) to minimize the stress and pain experienced by the lamb. The dock (tail) should be left long enough to cover the ewe's vulva and ram's anus. Short tail docks may contribute to the incidence of rectal prolapses.

While many animal rights and welfare organizations claim that tail docking is an inhumane practice made necessary by modern production practices, this claim is simply untrue. When done properly, tail docking is not inhumane. While it causes some pain, it does not affect the health or growth of the lamb. Tail docking is done to protect the health and hygiene of sheep and lambs. Liquid feces can occur in all production systems; thus, risking the sheep to flystrike.

Hair sheep
It is usually not necessary to dock the tails of hair sheep breeds, including Katahdin, Dorper, American Blackbelly, Barbados Blackbelly, Damara, St. Croix (Virgin Island White), Wiltshire Horn, Pelibüey, Santa Inês, and Royal White®.

One of the unintended consequences of selecting sheep for wool growth was longer, thicker,woolier tails. Hair sheep tails are more similar to the ancestor of modern sheep, the Mouflon, which has a short, wooless tail.

Rat-tailed sheep
Some wooled breeds have naturally short tails or thin, woolless tails that also do not require docking. These breeds are called Northern European short-tailed or "rat-tailed" sheep. They include Finnsheep, East Friesian, Shetland, Icelandic, Romanov, and Soay.

Because East Friesians are a dairy sheep, their tails are usually docked to create a more sanitary environment for milking.

Fat-tailed sheep
Some sheep have fat or broad rumps and/or tails. These kind of sheep comprise 25 percent of the world's sheep population. They are hardy and adaptable, able to survive the tough challenges of desert life and other extreme climatic conditions.

It is not customary to dock their tails. In fact, the tail fat is considered a delicacy in some cultures. Sheep-tail fat is called "allyah" in Arabic. Historical religious text (Hadith) claims that sheep-tail fat is a "cure" for sciatica (lower back and leg pain caused by irritation of the scaitic nerve).

Fat tails are also a result of artificial selection, as some ancient cultures needed a source of fat for cooking and selected sheep that could provide it.

Naturally-docked sheep
Using the short-tail breeds (e.g. Finnsheep) as a foundation, scientists in Australia and New Zealand are trying to breed sheep with naturally short tails that do not require docking. Years ago, researchers in the U.S. successfuly bred "tail-less" sheep. Unfortunately, the tail-less trait was linked to a lethal gene, similar to the one in Manx cats.


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Last updated 19-Jun-2012
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