Sheep facts

Domestic sheep: There are several hundred domestic sheep races bred all around the world. The exact number is not yet verified and could vary between 200 to about 1229 different sheep races (FAO 2007, State of the world’s animal genetic resources for food and agriculture). Most sheep are bred as multipurpose and, the majority intended only for meat and wool production.

The total number of sheep in the world over the past 40 years exceeds 1 billion. The peak was reached in 1990: 1,260 million sheep. Sheep are unevenly spread across continents. Asia is the continent with the greatest number of sheep – 1/3 of the total herds in the world. The second number of sheep Africa Oceania and third place is Europe and the Americas.

Environment: While sheep have been used for centuries to control unwanted vegetation, grazing as a fee-based service is a relatively new phenomenon. Along with goats, sheep are the best livestock to use to control unwanted vegetation, such as noxious weeds and invasive plants. Sheep are also a direct benefit to the rural environment as they contribute to keep biodiversity and protection of local natural heritage, they also represent an income for the farmers of less favourite areas.

Sheep are a precious animal also for grazing: employing the appropriate species of livestock to cripple unwanted plants and enhance desired ones.

In many instances, sheep and goats offer several advantages: they are natural and environmentally friendly; they’re highly mobile and able to access remote areas (mountains and hilly cultures); and they’re often less expensive than herbicide or mechanical help. Furthermore they are sustainable as they are able to graze in dry/poor rural environment giving a potential income to farmers also to the most disadvantaged rural areas.

The life expectancy of sheep is similar to large breeds of dogs, about 10 to 12 years. Some breeds, like Merino, are known for being longer-lived. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest living sheep was 23. She was a Merino.

Wool colour: Most modern domesticated sheep grow white wool. This is because white wool is more desirable in the market because it can be dyed in any colour. However, sheep with white wool may have different colour on their heads and legs. Wool is naturally produced in many beautiful colours: black, grey, silver, brown and red. Some sheep have spotted fleeces.

EU Sheep traditions

Sheep and goats are the first animals to be domesticated for agricultural purposes. They were domesticated over 10,000 years ago in Central Asia and Mesopotamia, but these sheep were primarily raised for meat, milk, and skins. Woolly sheep began to be developed around 6000 BC in Iran, and cultures such as the Persians became dependent on sheep’s wool for trading. Sheep helped to make the spread of civilization possible. Once men discovered the usefulness and warmth of wool clothing, they could travel opening new frontiers where the climate was colder. At the same time, they were assured a good food supply as long as they kept their sheep. Sheep production was well-established during Biblical times. Sheep husbandry spread quickly in Europe. Excavations show that in about 6000 BC, the Castelnovien people, living near present-day Marseille, were among the first in Europe to keep domestic sheep. During the next thousand years, Greeks, Romans and Persians contributed to improvements in sheep breeds all around Mediterranean Countries. Sheep production is man’s oldest organized industry. The Romans took their sheep with them all around the Empire and also to England and established a large wool factory near Winchester in about 50 AD. By 1000 AD, England and Spain were recognized as the twin centres of sheep production in the Western world.

The Merino sheep were a rich source of income for Spain. Income from the wool trade helped to finance the voyages of Columbus and the Conquistadors. Sheep were also an important source for food in the New World. These sheep were not the famous Merinos, but the large, coarse-woollen Spanish “Churros” developed for meat instead of wool. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both sheep breeders.

Today, sheep breeding is still valued greatly for the wool and meat it produces. A unique natural resource, the sheep converts forage more efficiently than any other ruminant being able to produce milk, meat and wool. It is also a very cost efficient and environmental friendly animal as it forages with poor/dry grass where other animals can’t. Sheep breeding is an important resource in terms of keeping the environment, and adding value to the rural economy.

Nowadays in Europe sheep breeding is highly developed especially around the Mediterranean Sea, in the Balkan Countries and the British islands.

Particular component of intangible culture of several European Countries is folk music that originates in pastoral traditions. Traces of this custom can be observed in popular festivities and it is also associated with the annual calendar cycle.

Transhumance in Europe

Transhumance is the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures. In mountain regions (vertical transhumance) implies movement between higher pastures in summer and lower valleys in winter.

Traditional or fixed transhumance occurs or has occurred in particular in Europe and western Asia. It is often of high importance to pastoralist societies, as the dairy products of transhumance flocks and herds (milk, butter, yogurt and cheese) often form much of the diet of such populations.

In the Balkans, the Sarakatsani, Aromanian and Yörük peoples traditionally spent summer months in the mountains and returned to lower plains in the winter. When the area was part of the Austro-Hungary and Ottoman empires, borders between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and FYROM were relatively unobstructed. In summer, some groups went as far north as the Balkan Mountains, and they would spend the winter on warmer plains in the vicinity of the Aegean Sea. The Morlach were a population of Vlach shepherds who lived in the Dinaric Alps (western Balkans in modern use), constantly migrating in search of better pastures for their sheep flocks. But as national states appeared in the area of the former Ottoman Empire, new state borders were developed that divided the summer and winter habitats of many of the pastoral groups. These prevented the easy movement across borders, particularly at times of warfare, which had been frequent.

Transhumance tradition was widely widespread across Europe: from Poland to Romania (along the Carpathians) in the British Isles, in the South Italy and Sardinia, in the Iberian Peninsula, the Pyrenees and in Scandinavia.

Transhumance is a widespread phenomenon all over the world: in Middle East, Caucasus, Central Asia, east and south Africa, Australia, Appalachian region and in South America.

Bulgarian Sheep tradition

Sheep is one of the most important traditional agricultural activities of Bulgaria. It is a resource for food production for now and the future and socio-economic stability of large areas of the country in regions where demographic decline is the greatest. Sheep products (meat and cheese) constitute a valuable opportunity in sight of opening new market possibilities for the Bulgarian quality food sector.

One of the first example of sheep breeding in Europe was found in Dobrogea – today’s north-eastern Bulgaria. Since then, sheep farming is an important and integral part of the history and livelihood of the population in that region. The first written evidence of Bulgarian sheep in this area has been witnessed in Turkish documents from the 15th century significant and comprehensive studies of it have been made for the period from the second half of the 18th to the mid-20th century.

Bulgaria has very favourable agro-environmental conditions for the development of this subsector. From the early 20th century to the early 21st century the number of sheep in the country has decreased almost tenfold, from 10 million sheep, to almost 1 million. The viability of this industry is being threatened as such young farmers need to be enticed into the industry in order to perpetuate and continue in the traditions of sheep farming.

A particular component of the intangible Bulgarian culture are the pastoral ballads, these songs talk about family and domestic issues and describe the transhumant pastoralism which is the subject of particularly liked Rhodope ballads about kehaya, shepherds. The masterpiece of shepherd’s instrumental music is “The lost flock”, an authentic expression of improvisational freedom of performance and instrumental skills.

Main sheep bred in Bulgaria

North-East Bulgarian Merino: multi purposes (meat, dairy, wool)

The most popular merino breed in the country was created by crossing native sheep with breeds of Merino fleish and Russian Askanian.

Askanian Merino: mainly for wool

This breed was created in Russia by crossing of Russian merino sheep and using rams from American Rambue breed. At the beginning of the process of population formation purebred ewes from different lines were imported and then later only rams.

Blackhead Pleven

This is a local sheep breed with higher milk productivity-milk yield. The system of management of this sheep is intensive not only in the plains, where the pasture is limited, but also in the mountainous regions. The basic reason for the sheep being kept indoors are the severe conditions in the winter.

Sheep Milk Cheese

White Brine Cheese is a traditional high quality dairy product produced in Bulgaria. White brine cheese is produced traditionally from the milk of sheep and goats, which are naturally reared free in mountain regions. This gives the cheese a specific and fine flavour, due to the mountain herbs of the Bulgarian highlands. The milk is pasteurised at 68-70 degrees Celsius and after that cooled to 32-34 degrees Celsius. Then acid bio-additives are added, using yogurt, to approximately 0.3%-0.5%. It is slightly crumbly with a fat content of about 30–35%. However, most production today is around 45% of milk fat. The qualities of the white brine cheese are due mostly to the specially selected strain of Lactobacillus bulgaricus starter culture, which gives this delicious high quality product its specific taste.

The process of coagulation occurs within 48 hours from milk collection. When coagulation is complete, the white brine cheese is cut into cubes and then transported carefully into moulds, which favour draining and shaping. Next it is placed into barrels or other containers with brine. It is then transported into maturing chambers until maturing is complete. The cheese is kept in refrigeration at a temperature of 2-4 degrees Celsius.

The total maturing time of white brine cheese can last up to 2 months. At optimal conditions of storage, white brine cheese can last for more than a year. White brine cheese is most suitable for direct consumption, for use as a garnish on salads, or for high temperature cooking for other delicious dishes.

Sheep cheese comprises about 1.3 percent of the world’s cheese production. Some of the world’s most famous cheeses were originally made from sheep’s milk: Roquefort, Feta, Ricotta, Machengo and Pecorino. Sheep’s milk is also made into yogurt, butter, and ice cream. Sheep milk is richer compared to the milk from goats and cows for cheese-making. It contains higher amounts of fat, solids, and protein. For this reason, sheep milk gives a much higher cheese yield than the milk from cows or goats. Yogurt and ice cream are also commonly made from sheep milk. Sheep milk can be frozen for up to a year without losing much of its cheese-making qualities.

Sheep milk production is seasonal, depending on the breed and guidelines productivity lactating can be from 105 to 150 days. The greatest amount of sheep milk is produced in Asia and Europe. In Europe, production is concentrated in the Mediterranean and Balkan countries, where there is a good tradition in the production and processing of sheep milk. Sheep’s milk contains more than 100 different nutrients.

Sheep Meat

Sheep meat: Meat is an important component of our diets, and lamb and mutton supply us with many of the vital vitamins and proteins we need for healthy living. Lamb is the meat (flesh) from a sheep that is less than one year old. Mutton is the meat from a sheep that is over one year of age. The terms yearling mutton are applied to the meat from a sheep that is between one and two years of age. As with other red meats, its protein is nutritionally complete, with all eight essential amino acids in the proper ratios. Lamb is high in B vitamins, zinc, and iron. Mutton has a more intense flavour than lamb, but is preferred to lamb in some cultures. Yearling mutton is the meat from a sheep that is between one and two years of age. It is intermediate in flavour intensity between lamb and mutton.

Flavour: There is no flavour difference in the meat from a young intact male and the meat from wethers (castrated male lambs) and ewe lambs. As the ram sexually matures, their hormones may cause a slight taint in the taste of the meat. Selection and domestic culinary preferences are affected for the manifestation of this feature in different breeds.

Appearance: Gives general idea of freshness and juiciness; Meat colour – is determined by the content of myoglobin and depends on breed, age, sex and type of farming of animals.

Tenderness: Addition of gender, race, age, etc.. Leanness is directly dependent on the thickness of the muscle fibres, the content of elastin and collagen, the water content of the maturation process, etc.

Smell: Meat of sheep breeds bred in Western Europe has no smell, while in Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula observed preference for meat sheep with a specific flavour.

Age at slaughter: is determined by the national culinary preferences in different countries and some economic considerations. The meat of older animals with darker pink colour than the young, where the colour is pale pink; In some western European countries – England, France, Germany, etc., lambs are kept together with sheep – mothers and implemented for meat at a higher body weight 40/45 kg / approximately 4 months.

Lamb Cutlets

Lamb cutlets are small and they have a very special tenderness. A thin boneless chop, or one with only the rib bone, this is a cut of meat cut perpendicularly to the spine. Cutlets require a cooking time rather short: just 2 or 3 minutes on each side. Also dipped in delicious, breaded and then fried in butter.

Lamb Rack

Lamb rack are not separated ribs form a square that will be a particularly tasty roast. Rack of lamb comes from the front/middle section. Rib chops are single or double chops cut from the rack. The rack starts at the lamb saddle and goes through the full eye muscle (a premium cut ideal for quick cooking to maximize its tender, juicy qualities). A rack can be frenched (fat and tissue between the bones is removed), capoffed (the fat cap is removed) or fully denuded (all fat removed).

Lamb Forequarter

The forequarter is actually quite versatile. Whilst with other animals they require slow cooking, and it still works in this scenario, a staple in the Australian diet and it is very widespread in the British culinary tradition as well. The boneless shoulder(or forequarter), for those who like something slightly more tender, is an excellent cut, which breaks down beautifully when cooked slowly in the oven.

Lamb neck Chops

It is the lamb neck, it is a flashy piece of meat and it has a lot of flavour. It is a tough cut that needs very long, slow cooking. It yields a surprisingly generous amount once every scrap is tender. It can be bought on the bone, or off the bone as neck fillet. Both need slow cooking, so stew or braise until tender.

Leg of lamb

Taken from the hindquarters, a leg typically weighs 8 to 10 pounds and feeds 6 to 8 people. (Leftovers are delicious in sandwiches and salads.) For an easier-to-carve option, choose a boneless leg. Cutting a leg open from the middle creates a butterflied leg. This yields thin steaks that lie flat and cook faster, which are ideal for grilling. A butterflied leg can also be rolled and stuffed with a mixture of garlic and herbs.

Best for: Roasting and grilling.


Perhaps the tenderest of all lamb cuts, is perfect for searing or grilling. Lamb tenderloins are petite, so you’ll need a lot of them. This cut deserves careful treatment. It’s lean and delicate. Keep it simple. Salt, pepper, garlic, branches of rosemary. You might want to rub the meat with oil before putting it in the hot pan.

A quick pan sear for a few minutes on each side is all it needs. You could do that on a grill, too. Slice into delicate medallions and then fan out the morsels of lamb on a platter with vegetables of your choice.

Lamb sausage

Lamb sausage: is a fresh sausage made with lamb, or a mixture of meat stuffed into a lamb-intestine casing. It is heavily spiced with cumin and chili pepper or other spices, and garlic which gives its characteristic rich taste. This is a gourmet sausage like you’ve never tasted! Delicious grass-fed lamb meat with all natural ingredients to create this unforgettable flavour.

Lamb Chops

Lamb chops are sold in different cuts. Loin chops look like little T-bone steaks and have a generous portion of meat. Pricier rib chops, cut from the rack, have a long bone on the side and are prized for their tenderness. Budget-friendly shoulder chops are larger and a bit chewier and fattier than the other versions.

Best for: Pan-frying, roasting, broiling, and grilling.

Shopska Salad with white sheep cheese

  • 3 big tomatoes
  • 2 medium-sized cucumbers
  • 3 green peppers
  • 2 red onions
  • 100 g white brine cheese
  • 10-15 black olives
  • ½ bunch of parsley
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • Salt and vinegar

Cut the onion into thin strips or neatly chop it. Remove the seeds of the peppers, cut them in half lengthways and slice them into strips. Peel the cucumbers and dice them together with the tomatoes.

Combine all the vegetables in a suitable bowl and salt them. Add the olive oil and the lemon juice.

Garnish the salad with the olives, the grated or sliced or cubed white brine cheese and chopped parsley.

Cooking tip: A chilli can be added to the salad for extra zing of flavour.

Banitsa with white brine cheese

  • 1 package prepared Filo pastry (400g)
  • 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil
  • 125g butter
  • 200-300g white brine cheese
  • 1 cup of yoghurt
  • 3 eggs
  • Salt and ground white pepper

Grease the baking pan in which you will bake the Banitsa with the cooking oil and some of the butter.

Make the filing in a separate container by mixing together the yoghurt, the beaten eggs and the crumbled cheese.

Grease each separate sheet of the filo pastry with the melted butter and put filling on every third sheet. Cut it into 6 or 8 pieces.

Bake in an oven preheated to 180 degrees until it becomes golden in color.

Serve the Banitsa warm.

Chevermé (Lamb on the spit / Slow roasted whole lamb)

  • 1 full lamb
  • 2 lemons
  • Olive oil
  • Ground black pepper
  • Sea salt
  • Dried oregano, rosemary & parsley

Lay the lamb down on its side and rub the insides and the outsides with the cut sides of two lemons.

Brush with olive oil.

Season liberally with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, dried oregano, rosemary and parsley.

Cooking tip: Using the tip of a knife, make small incisions every few inches in the skin and insert slices of garlic or herbs to flavour the meat.

Homemade sheep sausage “Sudzhuk”

  • 1 kg. mutton
  • 30g. of salt
  • 2/3 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 10 g. dried savoury seasoning
  • 2/3 teaspoon g. ground cumin
  • Dried crushed mint

Soak dried sheep intestines, cut at a length of about 15 cm, for an hour in lukewarm water. The meat is ground, kneaded with the spices, salt and sugar and left to stay overnight in a cool place, while thoroughly kneaded every 6 hours.

The intestine is tied on one side and slowly filled up with the mixture; there should be no air remaining inside. If there is air bubble left, pierce slightly with a needle and remove the air. Give the sausage a horseshoe shape, hang in ventilated place at 10 – 12 degrees temperature and with 10 cm distance between sausages.

In five or six days roll them with a rolling pin and press them with a weight for 6 hours. Repeat this 4 times.

Drying process takes about 20 days.


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  • Activity in Bulgaria, in May 2017:

Bulgarian National Sheep-Breeders Festival from 12 to 14 of May 2017


About the Association

The National Association of Milky Sheep Breeders in Bulgaria (NARMOB) was established in 2006, with headquarters in Sofia.

At present the association comprises of around 400 farmers from 20 districts all over the country who breed over 65,000 ewes. Aside from farmers, dairies and meat processing plants and two scientific institutes are also represented in the association.

The main objectives of the association are:

  • To represent the common interests of its members before state authorities and institutions;
  • To defend the interest of its members on the development of selection and reproduction of animal husbandry;
  • To act on behalf of its associates with the Competent Authority and the International institutions as well as throughout the promotion of the association and its activities;
  • To cooperate in the development of dairy sheep breeding, improve product quality, protection and control of the origin and the authenticity of the sheep breeds;
  • To organize academic and technical activities in order to promote and perpetuate sheep breeding nationally and at European level.

National Association of Milky Sheep Breeders in Bulgaria

7 Positano Str., Level 1, Office 1, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria

+359 62 622 336

+359 62 622 336

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