Telling mutton from goat meat


Michael Wafula, a farmhand grazes a flock of sheep and goats in Elburgon, Nakuru County, on Tuesday. Families in Elburgon prefer keeping sheep for mutton and wool instead of goats. Goat meat in Kenya is more popular than lamb or mutton.

Photo credit: John Njoroge | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The more tender the meat, the more rapidly juices are released.
  • Sheep graze on short grass close to the ground while goats are browsers.

  • Males of sheep and goat emit some odour, which is more offensive in goats.

Christmas is around the corner and Kenyans are gearing up for the festivities. Among other animals, sheep and goats will be slaughtered at home. Buyers will visit markets and homes in search of animals.

Should one go for sheep or goat? Though the two appear similar due to their small frame compared to cattle and other large animals, they are different in appearance, behaviour and meat.


The body of a sheep is mostly covered by a coat of wool but a goat has hair. The wool requires regular grooming like shaving or shearing while a goat’s hair needs little or no maintenance. However, some sheep – like the Persian blackhead – have hair.

Sheep have short broad tails curving downwards. The tails are docked in the first week of life for hygienic purposes and to minimise fat accumulation. A goat, on the other hand, has a short pointed tail that curves upwards unless the animal is sick or scared.

The upper lip of sheep is divided in the middle by a groove while that of a goat is not.

Sheep, in many cases, have no horns. When they spot horns, they are thick and curved tightly at the sides of their heads. Goats have narrow, less curved and upright or backward-facing horns.

General behaviour

While sheep are docile and stick together in flocks, are easy to handle and can persevere adverse weather conditions, goats are curious and not easy to contain. Handling them is not easy as they jump around and resist being restrained. Goats frequently fight and avoid rains and other adverse weather conditions. Sheep that intend to attack a person charge forwards while goats move back and charge straight on with their heads.

Sheep graze on short grass close to the ground while goats are browsers.

Males of sheep and goat emit some odour, which is more offensive in goats.

Goat meat and mutton

Both species are consumed widely around the world. However, goat meat is locally used more for festivities because it can withstand the high roasting/barbecue temperatures. Its taste is closer to beef as compared to the game flavour of sheep meat. 

To differentiate a sheep from a goat carcass hanging in a butchery, check on the general appearance.

The carcass of a goat is slender and has a sharp tail covered with a thin layer of fat. The meat is covered in most cases by a thin or no coat of fat.

A sheep’s carcass is stocky, with rounded hind limbs that are covered by a thick layer of fat. The tail too is covered by a thick layer of fat unless adulteration has taken place. Adulteration means the fat has been trimmed off to make customers believe they are buying goat meat.

Most consumers use tenderness, taste, nutrition, health and flavour to assess the quality of meat. The more tender the meat, the more rapidly juices are released by chewing and the less residues remain in the mouth, leaving one yearning for more.

The sensation of juiciness in cooked meat is closely related the fat between muscles. Having more of such fat, mutton or lamb is considered more succulent than goat meat.

Goat meat tends to be milder and slightly sweeter compared to lamb, especially when roasted or barbecued.

The many shrubs and herbs consumed by goats improve the taste of the animal’s meat. However, fried mutton/lamb has a distinct sweet taste.

While meat from both animals provides delicious, succulent and nutritious meals, goat has more muscles (fibre) while mutton/lamb has more fat. Muscles are richer in protein and minerals while fats contain soluble vitamins.

Sheep meat has more fat content than goat, raising a health concern for customers who intend to reduce their cholesterol blood levels.

Other issues

Other issues to consider when acquiring an animal for slaughter are gender, castration status, dairy vs meat animals, age and breed.

Generally, acquisition of female sheep and goats for slaughter is discouraged as the animals are ordinarily reserved for breeding.

A female animal might also be pregnant, thus misleading the buyer to think that s/he has bought a bigger animal while the truth is that the extra weight is due to a foetus that will be discarded.

However, females of all species – including humans – tend to accumulate fat in their bodies mainly due to reproductive hormones secreted.

A female dairy goat should only be slaughtered if it no longer produces milk or is uneconomical to maintain.


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