Sheep teeth and age

I mentioned in my last post that teeth can reveal the age of a sheep, but I did not go into any detail in order to avoid sounding like I was encouraging people to go sticking their hands and fingers into random sheep-mouths at the fair. Now that we have a safe time gap between the context of the last post and this one, here is the basic story behind telling a sheep’s age from its teeth with several different diagrams.



New lambs have “milk teeth,” which are small and uniform, these milk teeth will replaced by large permanent teeth. Sheep replace their milk teeth at a rate of a pair a year over a four-year period. It is recommend that ewes are purchased when they have one or two pairs of permanent teeth, when they are one or two years of age. This way they are old enough to have developed their immune systems, but young enough to have a long breeding life ahead of them.





After the sheep has all of its permanent teeth, the teeth will start to erode and separate from each other. This can be seen in the third diagram, in the set of drawn teeth labeled, “probably 8 years.” A sheep with missing teeth has a “broken” mouth. A sheep with no teeth is a “gummer.” It is better for a sheep to be a gummer than one with only one or two incisors, because a sheep is able to gum and use its molars enough to continue eating, while a sheep with a severely broken set of incisors will not have enough points of contact between teeth or gum to process grass and grain.

This is a very rough outline. The rate at which sheeps’ teeth erode is also dependent on diet, breed, local vegetation and terrain, and genetics.


Know your sheep, know yourself

It’s state and county fair season, a great time to look at what kind of wool sheep are being bred in your area. And if you are like me, you will be doing a lot of day dreaming, and probably more importantly – practicing a lot of self-control so there aren’t a couple of sheep bouncing around in the truck bed as you turn into your driveway.

If there is anything worse than not having sheep, it would be having sheep that you don’t have the means to properly take care of.

…that is my county fair and general animal swap mantra.

Regardless of being able to actually buy any wool sheep at the fair day this year, knowing the marks of a good sheep can help you understand the sheep judging process. It can also, of course, help you build a greater understanding of what you would like for your future flock. Consider it pre-pre-flock building research.

Wool is naturally one of the key features of a sheep that needs to be considered when building a flock. But between the Shepard knowing what he or she wants in the fiber, heaps of jargon, breed variance and other factors, I will discuss wool in another article.

When looking at sheep at the fair this year, check for:

  • Alertness
  • Clear, clean eyes
  • Clean nose (no runny noses)
  • Clean lines
  • Well-trimmed and uncracked hooves
  • Docked tail
  • Strong looking teeth (the teeth also reveal age)

Each breed has its own specifications and standards, which makes the judging process more involved. Below, is a tweeted picture from the Herdwick Shepherd that outlines the traits that are sought out in herdwick sheep.