A Question of Horns...

Some of the most frequently asked questions we get are in regard to the horns on sheep. We are including the following information in answer to these oft-asked questions:

Q. Do all Jacobs have horns?

A. All purebred Jacobs have horns. Frequently, crossbreds are polled (hornless.)

Q. Why do some Jacobs have 2 horns, while others have 4? or more? What number is correct and/or desirable? Is it always an even number?

A. The polycerate (multiple horn) tendency, which is a sought-after trait by many Jacob breeders, is neither dominant nor is it universal. While it likely may be somewhat hereditary, it is not strictly so. Two 2-horned individuals may produce a 4-horned offspring, just as two 4-horned individuals may produce a 2-horned offspring. And it is entirely possible for a 2-horned lamb to be twinned with a 4-horned lamb!

The decision about which number is "desirable" is entirely up to the breeder. Some breeders prefer the unusual appearance of multiple-horned sheep, while others prefer the 2-horned individuals for their greater ease of housing and care.

While Jacobs always have horns, any number is possible - and it's not always an even number! Generally, 2 to 4 is typical, with 5 or 6 being unusual but not rare.

Q. What causes the multiple horns? Fused horns?

A. While the lamb is still in the embryonic form, the horn bud splits; thus forming what outwardly appears to be 4 (or more) horns. So-called fused horns are then, more correctly, horns which have not divided cleanly.

Q. Must an individual whose horns are fused and/or misshapen be culled?

A. In our opinion, absolutely not. A decision on whether or not to cull any individual breeding sheep should be based on far more involved - and important - criteria than just horn pattern!

Q. But isn't the tendency to produce imperfect horns heritable?

A. While the tendency is somewhat heritable, to the best of our knowledge there have been no scientific studies which show this is inevitable. Many "barnyard surveys" show that animals with less-than-perfect horns still produce offspring with horn patterns that are fine by any standards!

If horns are your one and only goal, it would probably be wise to select a sire with the horn pattern you desire. But it's important to keep in mind that we are raising SHEEP here - and rare breeds to boot - not just horns! It would be a grave error for all breeders to limit an already small gene pool based on one cosmetic trait.

Q. What can or should I do if my ram's (or ewe's) horns are growing in towards its face/jaw/neck, etc.?

A. Whatever you do, don't let it get so bad that the horn actually grows into his hide. That's asking for problems with infection and nutrition, not to mention a miserable existence for the animal! This is a point at which human intervention is necessary.

If you can wiggle a finger between the horn and his face, the ram will have enough room to chew and will probably be ok. But check on the situation regularly! If there is no space at all between horn and jaw (or neck, cheek, etc.), something must be done immediately. Horn tips which are an imminent danger to the animal's eye must also be addressed. This is NOT a difficult thing to do!

Horns are made up of the same material as hooves, nails, and hair. There is a living core inside the horn, much like the living part of your fingernail or even more like the quick in a dog's claws or a sheep's hoof. This is *extremely* sensitive (ever break a fingernail off too short??), so you'll want to avoid cutting into it if at all possible. Cut - in smallish increments - part of the horn away. It's possible to cut quite a lot off the end if that will help - but again, take small amounts until you're familiar with the procedure - and watch for the sensitive, blood-filled core. If the ram's horn is spiraling too close to his jaw, so that the flat side of the horn rather than the tip is coming too close, cut a slice off the inside. You'll need to be even more careful here, as of course you'll be working even closer to the quick.

What kind of saw to use? For slicing a part off the inside, flat part of the horn, we've successfully used a woodworker's coping saw. We slide a piece of cardboard between the horn and the ram's face to keep him calm and to keep the sawdust out of his eyes. (Friends of ours have used a small, cordless reciprocating saw with great success. It makes a noise much like sheep shears, and didn't seem to frighten the ram at all!) Our vet has used a wire saw to cut off ends of horn. That saws very quickly and easily. If it's just the tip you're trying to remove, a pair of *really* heavy-duty horse-hoof nippers might do the job. You can use a wood plane to "dress up" the tips so they don't look oddly truncated and square when you're done.

Surprisingly, we've found that our rams are pretty patient with all this. They need to be restrained, of course. If you can find someone to hold your ram and soothe him, it will help enormously. A turning cradle would probably work, too; and a blocking stand could work in a pinch. (If necessary, your veterinarian can administer a drug to calm an extremely unmanageable individual.)

Horn trimming is more frequently necessary with rams, who grow larger and thicker horns, but some ewes will need trimming as well. Although my description here refers to rams, the same procedure applies to ewes.

Q. Can we bend or reshape the horns somehow?

A. We've heard a lot of wild stories about this, but we have yet to meet anyone who's actually made it work. Horns can be steam bent with heat and pressure...or by soaking in water for an extended period.  Unless you have a ram who is either willing to stand on his head in a bucket of water for a couple of days or plunge his horns into a vat of boiling water for say, 20 minutes... don't put much credence in those stories!

We have tried to reshape horns with the help of spreaders or weights, without success. This technique does work in fruit orchards...but we found our sheep were considerably more active than the typical apple tree! Any devices we rigged up were annoying and/or uncomfortable. Since the sheep have 24 hours per day to work such gizmos free, and we had much less free time to put them in place, we gave up that idea long ago!

Q. Doesn't this altering of horns constitute interfering with natural selection?

It's important to bear in mind that these sheep are domesticated animals, and have been for thousands of years! Unlike wild animals, domesticated stock requires human intervention at many points. Humanity has selected for traits that we find desirable - not necessarily those which the animals themselves find desirable or important for survival! Humans routinely perform operations such as tail docking and castration, and procedures such as shearing , hoof trimming, and vaccination. We also assist with lambing and raising orphaned lambs.   Attending to problems with a sheep's horns is no different!

Q. Will a less-than-perfect individual be registerable?

A. A responsible registry should be willing to register individuals who have demonstrated adequately that they are purebred.   Subjective decisions - such as opinions as to what constitutes a "perfect" specimen, have no place in any rare breed registration process.


Q. Can I have my sheep dehorned or disbudded, as are goats?

A. This is strongly discouraged. One reason is that a hornless Jacob is not registerable, as horns are a distinct mark of the breed! If you're used to working around goats, you'll find that there are considerably fewer problems with horned sheep than there are with horned goats. While we've never dehorned a sheep, we have had experience with broken horns...and it's only with intensive treatment and care that the animal did not die. We have been advised that's it's much trickier to disbud a sheep than it is to disbud goats or cattle. If you truly desire to have a hornless sheep, there are a great many naturally polled breeds to choose from. If the horns are a real concern for you, it makes far more sense to choose one of these breeds.


Q. I have a ewe lamb that's broken one of her horns off. We finally managed to staunch the flow of blood, but wonder what to do next. Will her horn grown back normally?

A. This is very common, especially with 4-horned ewe lambs. But it also happens with older sheep, especially rams that fight.

Observe the sheep for the next few days and ascertain that it is eating, drinking, and behaving normally. Typically, any remaining stub will be a little sensitive for a few days; it may also ooze a little blood. The stub, if it remains, should heal over and continue to grow; but it will never "catch up" to the remaining unbroken horn(s). Watch for any fly problems, and treat promptly!

If the sheep is grinding its teeth, and/or refusing to eat or drink, it's time to seek veterinary attention. Sometimes simply bandaging the sensitive damaged core will help; but any dressing will need daily attention. It's better to leave the wound open to the air if possible.


 Moon Hill Strangely Enough

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