Handling: Sheep-human problems: Welfare issues
By Dr Clive Dalton
Are sheep intelligent?
- You have to be careful not to define "intelligence" in human terms.
- Sheep are not the stupid animals many people take them for.
- Sheep are certainly capable of learning simple routines like coming when called, finding holes in fences, opening gates and they can learn these tricks from each other.
- Food rewards are the way to teach sheep routines and tricks, if you think it's a wise move. You may live to regret it!
- Lambs quickly learn from their dams - e.g. eating new feed like concentrate meal, grain, hay, silage, cracking open chestnuts with their feet, selecting garden flowers, and so on.
- To keep sheep moving, make sure there's always a clear way ahead.
- Sheep don't like visual dead ends - they don't move freely towards them.
- Arrange things so that they think they're about to escape back to their home territory - the paddock they came from!
- For a dead end in a woolshed, put a mirror on the wall so the sheep see a sheep to move to for security.
- If you have to put sheep along a handling race, pen a decoy sheep at the far end to help attract them along.
- Make races narrow enough to prevent sheep turning round and blocking the flow. This is not easy, as you have to handle sheep ranging in size from large pregnant ewes to small lambs in the same facilities. Having tapered sides to the race (slightly wider at the top than at the bottom) can help.
- Make sure the sides of pens and races where you do most of the handling are closely boarded, so the sheep cannot see through and get distracted.
- Advancing sheep should not be able to see those following them, as they'll stop then reverse, or try to turn round and block the flow.
- Sheep following each other should see sheep moving ahead, preferably around a bend. Moving sheep will generally "pull" the followers with them - once you've got a flow going.
- Sheep move best from dark into light, and generally dislike changes in light contrast.
- Sheep don't like bright lights e.g. reflections from windows.
- They don't like light coming up from under gratings. Gratings at woolshed doors should to be laid so the floor looks solid on entry to the sheep.
- Sheep really panic on slippy floors so provide some grip.
- Sheep soon get adjusted to any noise used to move them - so keep changing the noise for effect. Changing it (or stopping it) will also help prevent the workers going silly!
- Sheep remember past experiences. Run them through new facilities a few times and let them think they can escape before you subject them to any unpleasant procedures like ear tagging or shearing.
- If you have badly designed handling facilities that cannot be fixed - keep a "Judas" sheep to lead the doubters through.
- To lead other sheep into the truck, you can train a Judas sheep with some pellets, and pet lambs are useful for this job. Make sure the Judas sheep isn't accidentally loaded into the truck though! Cover it with coloured marker raddle.
- Don't catch or hang on to sheep by their wool. It will cause pain.
- To catch a sheep, move up quietly behind it. This is the 'blind zone' but in practice the sheep will always see you coming so it's best to have it in a crush pen blocked in with other sheep.
- The aim is to end up with it sitting on its rear end for jobs like feet trimming.
- Hold it still by putting one hand under its chin and lift its head slightly to stop it lurching forward. If it gets its head down you will lose control.
- Start by placing one hand under its chin, and turn its head round to face its rear on the side away from you. Grab its rear end with your other hand, or down where the back leg joins the body. See picture below.
- Hang on tight and move backwards pulling the sheep towards you. Keep pressure on its head.
- The sheep's legs should buckle and its body will fall back towards you. Don't let it fall to the ground or you'll lose it.
- If you are strong and the sheep small, a lift along with the twist will stop the sheep's legs contacting the ground and reducing the chances of it getting a foothold and fighting to escape.
- Then quickly grab its front legs and pull it up on its rear end at an angle of about 60 degrees from upright. If it is too far forward it will jump back on to its feet - be prepared for this. If it is too far back it will struggle and kick with both back legs in unison.
- Practice finding the right angle to sit the sheep, and keep your legs close in behind its body.
- When you find the right angle, the sheep will relax and you can take your hands off and hold it only with your legs and especially your knees. It's the position a shearer uses before starting to shear.
Tipping large heavy sheep
With a big heavy ram or ewe, you'll struggle to turn its head around as its neck will be too strong. Make it easy by using two tricks.
Trick 1 (two legs)
- Block the sheep in the crush pen.
- Kneel down beside it and reach through to grab the two far side legs.
- Give the legs a firm pull towards you and the sheep should drop onto its side.
- Use that moment of surprise to hold it down, and then grab its front feet quickly and sit it on its rump. Watch for flying legs when it realises what has happened!
- When lifting small sheep over fences, rock them up and over on your knees to save your back, as shown below. Don't try to lift heavy sheep.
Trick 2 (one leg)
- Here instead of kneeling down to grab both far side legs, reach down and grab only the far side front leg.
- Give it a pull and the sheep will go down on its side.
- Be ready to grab the sheep and quickly lift it up so it doesn't escape.
Declining profits on sheep farms has lead to:
- Reduced farm maintenance seen in poor fences /yards/woolshed.
- Reduced fertiliser so less quality feed.
- Increased flock size so more sheep/person and overwork brings less care about the individual animal.
- An aging farmer and family wanting less work.
- Shortage of skilled labour - shepherds, shearers, wool handlers.
- All these points have animal behaviour and welfare implications.
- What are the solutions? Farmers must devise and use more technology without compromising the welfare of the sheep. Start to use the sheep's innate behaviour to make handling easier.
Sheep welfare issues
The many people and organisations interested in sheep welfare list the following topics for concern:
- Lameness. The pain caused by sore feet, so sheep graze walking on their knees.
- Flystrike. The agony of being eaten alive by maggots.
- Shearing. Stress caused by catching the sheep and then having a machine run all over its body with the risk of being cut.
- Shearing. Cold stress caused by losing its fleece, especially in unseasonal storms.
- Stress from not shearing. Having to carry many years of wool in summer heat. And often not being able to see (wool blind) into the bargain.
- Dystocia. Problems caused by difficult births.
- Lamb mortality. Lambs lost through hypothermia.
- Castration. The pain of having rubber rings put on testicles or having them cot out with a knife and no anaesthetic.
- Docking. Having the tail removed with a rubber ring or a cut off with a hot cauterizing iron and no anaesthetic.
- Transport. The stress of long journeys in land vehicles and even longer journeys by ship to hot countries.
- Dipping. Making sheep run through or stand in showers or swim through dip baths.
- Swim washing at works. Sheep don't like having to be made to swim.
- Dog worrying. The panic and pain that stray dogs cause.
- Mulesing. Removal of the loose skin around crutch by hand shears with no anaesthetic.
- Parasites. The stress and poor health caused by both internal and external parasites.
- Untreated diseases. Sheep left to suffer the disease without any treatment.
- Underfeeding. This happens when farms have too many stock and in droughts.
- Easy-care or minimal-shepherding systems. This is where shepherds keep away from their sheep and rely on "the survival of the fittest" principle. Animals may be left to suffer in this system.