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FAQs: Are these sheep or goats?

How do you tell the difference between sheep and goats? The distinction may not make much difference when a flock of either blocks the road, but one can’t help being curious.

goat herd blocking the road, Greece

So, for the uninitiated, the best way to tell them apart is by their tails:

Sheep have thick medium-length tails that hang limply; goats have short tails which point upwards.

Other differences

Sheep have a shaggy, thick fleece, which may be slightly curly. Their horns usually curl on the side of their heads, next to their ears. They’re very docile and not noted for their intelligence. They always graze head down, eating what grows on the ground.

Goats don’t have fleeces, but coats of short and straight hairs[1]. Goats may have a beard or wattles hanging under their chin. Their horns vary, but they usually grow from the top of their head, pointing upward.

Unlike sheep, goats have personality: they’re very intelligent, playful and curious animals, and can make excellent pets. They have lots of energy, coupled with agility and amazing coordination. These qualities make them great climbers; they can find footholds where none are visible and go up the steepest cliffs at incredible speed – they can even climb some trees. They’re picky eaters, preferring fresh shoots, young leaves and – to the horror of Greeks – olives, which they will go to great lengths to reach.

goats eating olives

Illustrations of sheep and goats are very common and can usually be found in the back pages of magazines as Aries (the ram, or male sheep) and Capricorn (the goat). Although these illustrations tend to concentrate on the animals’ most striking features, and thus are easier to tell apart, it is important to remember that most illustrators know very little about the actual animals and mistakes sometimes happen.

 

Above, illustrations that capture well the features that tell the animals apart. Below, the rams are shown with tails pointed upwards, an anatomic impossibility. The one on the left, with those huge curved horns, looks like a wild goat rather than a sheep .

Capricorn is always shown with a fish-like tail; this may either be due to the constellation’s shape in the sky or rooted in Babylonian mythology.

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[1] Cashmere and angora goats are long-haired breeds, but you won’t find any in Greece.

Note: the illustrations of the various signs of the zodiac come from here, here, here and here. All rights belong to their authors.

 

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