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Are Goats and Sheep Related? Basic Explanation from Charlotte Riggs, Goat and Sheep Farmer

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about goats and sheep. One of the most common questions we get is whether these farm animals are related. Today, we are going to clear up this question once and for all with the help of Charlotte Riggs, an expert goat and sheep farmer. Charlotte has years of experience working with both animals, so she knows the answer to this question inside out!

Sheep (Ovines) and goats (Caprines) belong to the family Bovidae and are loosely related. The Bovidae comprises numerous species, including cattle and deer, with a defining trait of cloven-hooves and a rumen, a specialist fermentation vat within the stomach allowing digestion of grasses, etc.

Have you ever looked at a goat and a domestic sheep and wondered, are goats and sheep related? With numerous similarities between the two species – especially with luxurious angora goats and primitive sheep breeds – it’s easy to see why you might assume that goats and sheep are related.

And you’d be correct; there is absolutely a link genetically between goats and sheep, although the origins of this go a long way back. This fact even means that a goat-sheep hybrid – a geep! – is technically a possibility, albeit a very rare occurrence.

So, are goats and sheep related, and how does their family tree split to create these two different branches?

Are Goats and Sheep Related? 

While there are millions of years of genetic differences between modern-day goats and sheep, it’s safe to say that these two species are both relatively close in the biological tree of life.

When looking at feral or wild goats compared to more primitive breeds of sheep such as the Soay sheep, this relationship becomes even more clear.

It’s only really since human domestication that goats and sheep have taken such a dramatic evolutionary route. Indeed, modern commercial sheep now produce far more wool than they ever would have done in wild situations and don’t naturally shed this.

Most sheep are also now bred to have a much stronger carcass typically than is seen in wild, primitive breeds of sheep.

Meanwhile, goats also show dramatic differences from their ancient ancestors, with different breeds bred for different purposes. For example, some goat breeds produce substantially more milk than they would naturally, while others like the angora and cashmere produce fine, soft fleeces, and breeds such as Boers and Rangelands are bred to put on a heavier carcass and more muscle.

Goats Belong to

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Family: Bovidae
  • Subfamily: Caprinae
  • Genus: Capra

Sheep Belong to

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Family: Bovidae
  • Subfamily: Caprinae
  • Genus: Ovis

How are Goats and Sheep Related 

Both sheep (Ovines) and goats (Caprines) belong to the family Bovidae. The Bovidae family comprises numerous different species, including cattle, deer, bison, gazelles, wildebeest, and the like.

Their defining traits include being cloven-hooved and having a rumen, a specialist fermentation vat within the stomach that allows the animal to digest otherwise hard-to-digest foods (such as grasses) more readily. 

In addition, in the wild, most animals in this family have horns, or at least the males will; however, in many domesticated sheep, the polled (hornless) trait has been bred to reduce the risk of injury.

However, some horned sheep still exist, such as the iconic Jacob sheep with its set of either two or four horns! Interestingly, this is one area where goats and sheep differ – as links between the polled hornless gene and infertility have been seen in goats. 

The Differences Between Goats and Sheep

Goats and sheep often appear similar on the outside, but they are actually very different animals. Each species belongs to a different genus, but their similar genetics means that hybridization between goats and sheep is possible (although exceptionally rare). This trait is unlike horses and donkeys, which can breed relatively readily together to produce a mule.

However, sheep and goats have many differences. For one thing, sheep produce wool that contains lanolin, which makes them waterproof. By contrast, goats produce a hair coat, which does not contain lanolin and is not waterproof.

Another major difference between goats and sheep is in their dietary preferences. Goats are considered to be browsers, which means they will much more readily browse trees and the like for forages.

Contrastingly, since sheep are grazers, their natural diet traditionally consists of far fewer weed species and more fresh grasses.

As such, if you were to put sheep and goats in a pen together, you might find that the sheep would happily graze on the grass, while the goat would potentially be on the lookout for tasty treats and eat leaves, weeds, and the like while grazing.

Which Animal is Better – Goats or Sheep? 

Which is better – goats or sheep? Well, I won’t entirely answer that one, as I may be a little biased!

Everyone has their own preferences, after all, and individual animals often vary significantly from one another as well.

Still, both goats and sheep are exceptionally versatile and amazing creatures, and if you’ve been considering keeping them, it could be a hugely exciting new opportunity – although, of course, it’s also a massive learning curve!

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been wondering are goats and sheep related, we hope today’s guide will have given you a little information on where to start. Indeed, goats and sheep are closely related enough to produce hybrid offspring, but this is incredibly rare due to the significant differences in their genetics. In fact, it is estimated that goats and sheep differentiated around 4 million years ago – that’s a lot of generations for an animal whose potential lifespan typically tops out (at most) at twenty years!

Charlotte Riggs

A passionate owner and breeder of Boer Goats, Charlotte is ensconced in daily goat farm life at Himmon Boer Goats in the UK. A member of the British Boer Goat Society, she spends her spare time also involved with goats. You could say, and she would admit, she is somewhat obsessed!

Himmon Boer Goats – Dorset

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