Domestic sheep (Ovis aries) and goats (Capra hircus) are both even-toed ungulates (Artiodactyla), first domesticated around 11,000 (sheep) and 10,000 (goat) years ago in the (modern-day) Near and Middle East, Central Asia and parts of Africa. Although the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) predates the domestication of all other animal species by perhaps 10 to 20 thousand years, sheep and goats are considered the first of the domesticated agricultural livestock (Nomura et al., 2013; Ryder, 1983). This close association with humans could explain the range of breeds and uses that have developed, for example for milk, leather, meat, fleece and (more recently) as companion animals.
The most likely ancestor of the domestic sheep is the mouflon (Ovis gmelini), and for the goat, the bezoar ibex (Capra aegagrus aegagrus) is the most probable wild ancestor (Ciani et al., 2020; Naderi et al., 2008). Knowledge of these wild ancestors is important because it allows us to better understand the needs of the domesticated breeds and helps us decipher their behavioural responses and characteristics.
The behaviours that sheep and goats present to their owners are indicators of the differences in their ancestry and evolution
Sheep and goats share some similar features and resemble each other in certain ways, for example they are both social ruminant herbivores that produce similar bleating vocalisations, and seasonal breeders with a reproductive cycle controlled by day length. Despite these similarities, it is important to remember that they are different species in different genera and from differing wild ancestors. Therefore, the behaviours that sheep and goats present to their owners are indicators of the differences in their ancestry and evolution (Figure 1).
Genetic differences between sheep and goats
The phenotypic distinctiveness of sheep from goats (and vice versa) is further emphasised by genetic differences that manifest in the lack of hybridisation between the species and the non-viability of hybrids when they occur (Falker-Gieske et al., 2019).
Sheep tails hang downwards, whereas goat tails are erect. Goats have beards while sheep do not, and sheep have a divided upper lip (a philtrum) that has evolved to make grass selection during grazing more efficient.
Goats of both sexes possess horns and hornless breeds are very rare, whereas hornlessness is more common in sheep. There are, however, some well-known examples of sheep breeds with large (sometimes multiple sets of) horns carried by the rams and ewes, notably the Jacob sheep. Possessing horns provides an adaptive benefit, and hornlessness in goats appears to be tied to infertility (Simon et al., 2022). Differences in social structure, competition between individuals in a group and impacts of sexual selection (such as mate choice, lifetime reproductive effort and longevity) may be behind goats more commonly possessing horns than sheep. Either way, horns can be dangerous to other individuals in a herd and to owners/caregivers. Hence, knowledge of breed-typical and individual-specific behaviour is required to maintain safe working practices.
Differences in sheep and goat behaviour
Key behavioural differences centre around feeding behaviour, social behaviour and personality; these will be evaluated in the remainder of this article.
Sheep are a grazing species, while goats are more of a browsing species (Gordon, 2003). These different foraging techniques have implications for husbandry and management. Understanding the differences in feeding ecology supports essential elements of daily care, such as pasture management for sheep and provision of browsing and grazing for goats.
Understanding the differences in feeding ecology supports essential elements of daily care, such as pasture management for sheep and provision of browsing and grazing for goats
As sheep graze, they prefer to consume short, tender grass of good nutritional quality. Sheep are also selective feeders, usually cropping grass short and close to the ground. Conversely, goats have a broader dietary preference because they have evolved to graze and browse across a wide range of plant species. Therefore, goats are termed “intermediate feeders” (capable of browsing and grazing), which means they show a wide dietary flexibility (Silanikove, 2000).
Goats are also able to forage on different spatial levels due to their adept climbing abilities and will readily consume both poor-quality and good-quality forage. Because goats possess a range of physiological adaptations to effectively process such forage (Silanikove, 1997), they will outcompete sheep in some areas, especially when only poorer-quality forage and grazing is available.
Sheep have a strong tendency to group or “flock” together. Within these flocks, sheep form stable subgroups and follow each other to maintain the flock structure – often copying the behaviour of those around them (Fisher and Matthews, 2001). This “collective intelligence” (Gómez-Nava et al., 2022) may have evolved as a flight mechanism to facilitate escape from danger. Therefore, an individual sheep is more likely to feel safe and secure when other sheep are around.
A key importance for husbandry is that a social group is essential for sheep to buffer against stress and improve their overall well-being
Goats, by contrast, are more independent and exhibit less of this collective flocking behaviour, preferring to move as smaller family units (Miranda-de la Lama and Mattiello, 2010). Goats are considered more curious, exploratory and agile than sheep (as demonstrated by their climbing skills), and although they like to be in groups, individuals will often wander further away from each other compared to foraging sheep.
A key importance for husbandry is that a social group is essential for sheep to buffer against stress and improve their overall well-being. In fact, companionship should be a constant consideration for sheep care. Goats also need companions, but because they are more independent, they require more space to promote exploration, climbing and wider interaction with different environmental features and structures (Figure 2).
Personality and reactions to stimuli
The specific social behaviour of sheep and goats helps to (partly) explain their responses to novelty and perceived and actual threats in their environment (Figure 3). When threatened, sheep instinctively move together and remain near others in their flock, while goats are more likely to scatter and rely on their climbing agility to escape danger. Therefore, paddock or enclosure fencing and design should consider these flight responses to ensure animals cannot injure themselves or escape. As both are prey species, sheep and goats will scan the environment for danger, remain near other individuals to benefit from the group’s level of alertness and have a flight distance that they maintain from potential threats.
Effect on training and handling
Differences in personality and how the species respond to environmental stimuli can also explain responses to training and handling. Training, knowledge of personality and correctly designed paddocks/enclosures should be considered based on the working practices around the animals.
As a rule, sheep are easier to handle compared to goats, but care should be taken with large rams that can be powerful and aggressive. Many breeds of sheep have been domesticated for their wool and thus are often more tolerant of handling. This tolerance helps with general management, such as health checking. Goats may seem stubborn due to their more independent nature; therefore, goats can require more individual training to encourage them to be tractable and work with their owner for management and husbandry reasons.
Goats will benefit from socialisation and positive reinforcement training from a young age to improve the bond between owner and animal
Depending on the individual, sheep may require less training and can be more cooperative with their owner. Goats will benefit from socialisation and positive reinforcement training from a young age to improve the bond between owner and animal, which will help with care and management.
Owners should also consider reproductive cycles and seasonality that may manifest as alterations to individual behaviour, eg sexually driven aggression in rams or bucks that could be directed at humans or change the dynamics of a social group. Horned animals will be capable of causing more injury and harm than polled animals.
Understanding the behavioural differences between sheep and goats helps support good husbandry practices, which in turn supports good health and well-being. Knowing the needs of sheep and goats and how they differ as distinct species means owners can provide relevant husbandry and care. This includes appropriate social grouping, working with natural feeding strategies when formulating diets and working with the temperament and behaviour of the animals during handling and overall management practices – all of which will ultimately benefit animal and owner.