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The Horns They Wear

By Carolyn Nordin

Nordin Farms

Despite the many polled heads you see bobbing about North American flocks, this is not a true reflection of the world’s selection of sheep breeds-about half of which have horns. It seems to be the preference of the modern shepherd to avoid being horned into a feisty flock of hard-headed hoofers.

Those not genetically polled are often nipped in the bud. But there is another move afoot as heads are turning to admire the proud majesty of mighty rams in full display of their horny locks; such breeds as the Jacob and Scottish Blackface where both sexes have horns. For those considering a horned breed, here is some information I have accumulated while caring for our Scottish Blackface sheep.

A scenting ram
A scenting ram

Horns are essentially a bone core covered by an equally tough, modified skin sheath.

Horns grow throughout the animals life with rapid growth during the first two or three years and diminishing growth thereafter. Hormones also affect the rate of growth causing a growth spurt each summer.

Scottish Blackface rams are typically born with a horn bud, while the ewes’ horns are not visible until they are a few weeks old. Since they are initially hollow, these young horns are fragile. Once a horn is broken it will still continue to grow, but it will never match (or catch up to) the healthy horn. A broken horn tip is not too much of a health risk provided you guard against fly strike and infection. Keep the injured area clean and it will usually dry up in a day or two.

I imagine that as the bone core begins growing up into the horn it is as irritating as a loose baby tooth, because I often see the lambs rubbing their horns against fence posts and feeder rails. This can cause the sheath to separate at the base and the tip to fall off. These horn tips will firm up as the lamb ages, but will always be the weakest part of the horn.

If a horn grows too close to the animal’s face, or worse yet, grows into the jaw, it must be removed. Just remember that the basal third of the horn is where the meat and blood supply still fill the horn. Unless the in-growth is due to injury, such an animal should ultimately be culled to prevent this trait from being passed on to its descendents.

The bone core grows directly from the skull which is why rams have thick hard heads that can withstand cracking them against their competition. Most butting injuries occur not to the horn itself, but to the soft tissue at the horn base. Such injuries can induce fly strike, and can cause the horn sheath to be cracked or deformed as it grows from the injured area.

On a ram lamb, the initial horn buds soon become two large curling horns. Then at about two years of age, the base of the two horns have grown large enough to meet on the top of the ram’s skull, and the skin and hair that once separated them are lost. This is another time when your ram can be seen rubbing his head on whatever itch relief mechanism he can find.

Horns of an adult ram.
Horns of an adult ram.

Like deer and moose, you can often identify the king ram as the fellow wearing the largest crown. This instinctive acknowledgment of rank can be used to your advantage. When facing a group of rowdy knights with that challenging gleam in their eye, you can often diffuse any contest against your person by facing your opponent squarely, feet apart with your hands on your hips. From their perspective, your jutting elbows appear to be a large set of horns imposing and intimidating your rambunctious young tikes.

Effective as it is, this little trick will not necessarily prevent all attacks, but it will help minimize them. And please, do not try this with your four-year-old butt-buster who has already firmly established both his reputation and expectations.

Handling sheep with horns can be tricky. Even without malice your sheep can catch their horns on your clothes adding that air-conditioned feeling to your now enlarged pockets. Sheep absolutely hate having their horns handled, and if they are Scottish Blackface, they will be down-right nasty about letting you know it. So, while grabbing a sheep by the horns seemingly gives you control, you will have to fight like the dickens to maintain it. And if you grab the tip of the horn, you risk breaking it. The best way to maneuver your sheep is to guide them by the jaw just like regular polled sheep.

I love my sheep-horns and all-and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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