January 10, 2009

Sheep Farm Husbandry - Sheep behaviour and handling

Sheep behaviour & handling, sheep senses, social order, feeding, handling tricks, catching, moving and immobilising sheep, droving on the highway, welfare issues

By Dr Clive Dalton

Are sheep intelligent?

  • Animal behaviourists don’t like this question as it smacks of anthropomorphism – i.e. assigning human feelings and behaviour to animals. The better question is – can sheep learn?
  • Sheep can easily learn simple routines like coming when called, finding holes in fences, opening gates, and acting as leaders and they can learn these tricks from each other.
  • Feed 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, eating garden flowers, and even kitchen waste. They’ll also learn escape tricks from their mothers and flock mates.
  • Their senses are certainly different from humans.

Sheep senses

  • Sheep have generally very good vision.
  • The position of their eye allows wide peripheral vision as they can span some 145° with each eye.
  • Binocular vision is much narrower–40° wide. They have no vision 2-3cm immediately in front of the nose.
  • After locating a threat in their peripheral vision, they turn to examine it with binocular vision.
  • They have a blind spot at their rear of around 70°, which is wider than the cow, and is useful when catching sheep.
  • Sheep tracks are never straight as sheep continually turn to watch behind them.
  • They have colour vision but it’s not as well developed as in humans.
  • They often react in fear to novel colours that they’re not used to, e.g. yellow rain gear.
  • Sheep remember flock mates for very long periods (years) after separation.
Sheep don't like to see light through the woolshed
floor grating in the doorway of the shed

  • Sheep have a good sense of smell and will not eat mouldy or musty feed.
  • Smell is a major factor in rams locating ewes in heat.
  • Smell is also vital in lamb identification by the dam associated with sight recognition.
  • Sheep are very sensitive to predator smells. Feed intake was measured with different predator smells on it and you can see from the results below that coyotes, foxes and cougars put sheep off their food!
Sheep reactions to predator odours

  • Sheep have acute hearing and they can direct their ears to the direction of the sound.

  • Sheep have good memories.
  • They have been shown to recognise other sheep’s faces years later with no meeting in between.
  • Tests showed they remembered at least 50 other sheep’s faces, even in profile. They also remembered 10 or more human faces.
  • Sheep that have been trained to do simple tasks are able to repeat them 6-12 months later.

Sheep remember experiences so gentle handling
is important to avoid bruising and pain.

Social order
  • Sheep are the classical social “flocking” animal.
  • They use the flock as a defence against predators – running away a short distance to form a flock and then turning round to face the predator. On closer approach by the threat, they scatter and regroup.
  • Social ranking is not as obvious in sheep as in other species. Normally you’ll see very few confrontations among ewes unless they have young lambs to fight over.
  • Sheep work out a social order by head butting, nudging, poking with horns, shoulder pushing, blocking and mounting. This is seen most clearly in horned rams (American wild mountain sheep) that back off then charge, meeting head to head with a large bang. Horned and polled rams should not be mixed as the horned rams will break the others’ necks.
  • Submissive behaviours in sheep includes lowering of the head and neck and moving away with a headshake.
  • In wild sheep a dominant ram leads a small flock followed by females, juveniles and lambs. He establishes this as a harem of about a dozen ewes.
  • Rams can form harems in farmed flocks in large hill country paddocks where they can easily get separated from main flock. Regular mustering is needed to prevent this.
  • In wild sheep, a lamb will stay with its dam till the next lamb is born. Both sexes will stay in their family groups till the adolescent males take off.
  • In farmed flocks you don’t see much evidence of social order, as regular mustering and movement prevent much of it.
  • In groups of rams, especially Merinos in hot climates with no shade, they stand in a tight pack creating shade for each other.
  • Merino sheep pack very tightly when being mustered and once in a tight circular mob, you have to get a leader to spin off somewhere and act as leader to get the mob to unwind and move forward.
  • This leader sheep is not of high social rank – it’s the first one who thinks they can escape. Pressure from barking dogs just makes the pack tighter, and if you are in the middle of this crush, you can feel the physical pressure that can lead to a smother.
  • Merinos need room to move and hate hassle. They have different behaviour to other farmed breeds.
  • Lambs are noted for their play behaviour – “follow the leader” and “king of the castle”. It’s said to be an indication of intelligence level and using this behaviour, sheep would rank highly.
Sheep are the classical 'follower species' -
waiting for one to make a move

Feeding behaviour
  • Sheep are ruminants and they start nibbling pasture from about a week old. They are fully efficient ruminants by about a month old.
  • Sheep can graze more closely than cattle as they have a split upper lip.
  • They graze for about 8-9 hours/day, which can extend to 13 hours when feed is short.
  • Grazing bouts (when feed is plentiful) are about 20 –90 minutes long, and they can have as many as 9 of them in 24 hours.
  • After a grazing bout they have spells of 45-90 minutes of rumination and rest.
  • In open range, sheep have preferred areas and stick to these. This is seen in the UK “hefting” system in unfenced mountain grazings. A major concern in the UK Foot and Mouth disaster was how to replace these sheep after slaughter as they would have to learn this behaviour all again.
  • Mixed grazing by cattle and sheep is ideal to maintain a good close pasture, and sheep adapt to this without any behavioural problems.
  • The condition of a sheep’s teeth is critical, and can have a big effect on behaviour.
  • Sheep learn from their mothers about which feed is suitable and safe to eat. South Island sheep will eat grain and hay as they learn from their mothers in spring. North Island sheep will generally not eat grain or hay as they are never offered it.
  • It often takes 2-3 weeks for sheep to learn as mature animals, and some may never accept supplementary feed and starve. Sheep also learn to eat different feeds from other adults or their peers.
  • Sheep store surplus energy as fat inside the body cavity (e.g. kidney fat and around the intestines) and under the skin. They use this during late pregnancy and lactation for lamb growth and milk production.
  • About 3-4 weeks before mating, ewes are given extra feed to encourage extra eggs to be shed from the ovary, ending in more lambs produced. This is called “flushing”.
  • Sheep kept indoors show stress by eating the wood of their pens and they will also eat their wool or the wool of the sheep in the next pen.
  • This wool eating is seen in sheep that have been buried in deep snow for long periods (up to three weeks).
  • Sheep need water – about 4 L/day/adult sheep and 1 L/day for a lamb. But they can adapt to severe drought conditions and extract enough moisture to survive from herbage or dew on pasture. The Australian outback Merino shows this important behavioural trait best.

Sheep handling tricks

  • To keep sheep moving, make sure there’s a clear way ahead.
  • Sheep don’t like visual dead ends – maybe they suspect it could lead to their dead end!
  • Let them think they’re about to escape back to their territorial area – the paddock they came from.
  • If you have a dead end in a woolshed, put a mirror on the wall so they see a sheep to join up with for security.
  • If you have to put sheep along a handling race, pen a decoy sheep at the far end to help the flow towards it.
  • Make races narrow enough to prevent sheep turning round. 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 is a help.
  • Make sure the sides of pens and races where you do most of the handling are close-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 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 to the sheep walking inside.
  • Sheep really panic on slippery floors – so provide some grip.
  • Sheep don’t move well in mud and accumulated wet dung so keep the concrete parts of sheep yards clean.
  • Sheep soon get adjusted to any noise used to move them – so keep changing the noise for full effect. Changing it (or stopping it) will also help prevent the staff 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.
  • You can easily train a Judas with some pellets, or a pet lamb will do the job. Just make sure it doesn’t get onto the sale truck without you knowing. Many a Judas sheep has ended its days by accident like this. It’s not a bad idea to cover it in bright-coloured raddle or copy ancient tradition and put a bell around its neck – a bell wether.
Clever design: door to block the sheep race which fits inside the
other door so it doesn't impede sheep flow when not in use.

Catching and moving sheep

  • Don’t catch or hang on to sheep by their wool as it causes pain.
  • To catch them, creep up in the blind zone immediately behind them. But you have to move quickly.
  • The easiest thing to grab is the hock, and this is where you catch them with a leg crook. As soon as you’ve hooked the leg, lift the crook so its leg is held well off the ground. Then grab its neck before it gets the leg out of the crook.
  • Use a lambing crook – today’s models are aluminium and incorporate both leg and neck crooks. Either grab the sheep around the neck after you have crept up in its blind spot, or hook it around the neck as it goes past you. If it’s doing this at speed then be prepared for a fairly solid jerk and maybe losing the crook and the sheep! Once caught by the crook you’ll have to move fast to catch and restrain it.
  • To hold a sheep in a pen or in the yards, place one hand under its chin and hold it with your knees pushing it up against the rails. Keep lifting its head up to stop it lurching forward. If it gets its head down you will lose control.

Restraining a sheep up against the yard rails. Keep its head up and your
knee up against it's back leg.
  • To get it to sit on its rear end, first turn its head round to face its rear, then grab its rear end with your other hand, down where the back leg joins the body.
  • Hang on tight and move backwards pulling the sheep towards you.

Bend the head back and grab it just in front of the back leg. Pull and walk backwards.
  • The sheep’s legs will buckle and it will fall back towards you. Lay it on the ground on its side, and press down mainly on it’s head to keep it there.
Sheep now on the ground where it can be held
  • Then quickly grab its front legs and pull it up into a sitting position. You'll have to do this quickly as the sheep may be faster than you and escape or start kicking.
  • It's very important to find the correct sitting position where the sheep is comfortable and totally relaxed (see picture below). The sheep is being held only by the handler's knees bent slightly to keep the sheep upright.
  • If you move back from this position, the sheep will be uncomfortable and struggle, and if you move forward it will move forward and escape.
Sheep held in relaxed position with handler's knees pushed forward.
  • Practise finding the right angle to sit the sheep at, and keep your legs very close in behind its body. You should get the feeling that the sheep is sitting on your boots!
  • When you find the right angle, the sheep will relax and you can take your hands off and hold it only between your legs. It’s the position a shearer uses before starting to shear.

Perfection! Sheep totally relaxed for inspection,
treatment or for crutching or shearing.

The wrong angle with sheep leaning too far back. It's clearly
uncomfortable and ready to struggle, twist and escape.

Handling really heavy sheep
  • With a big heavy ram or ewe, you’ll struggle to turn its head around as its neck will be too strong.
  • Outsmart it by standing or kneeling beside the standing sheep with your head in its ribs, and grab the two far-side feet.
  • Give the sheep a mighty pull towards you and the sheep will land on its side in a hurry at your feet. Use that moment of surprise to dive on it to hold it down flat, and then grab its front feet quickly and sit it on its rear. Watch for flying legs when the sheep realises what’s happened and it wants to level the score!
  • Or just simply lean down and grab its far front leg and pull. Hang on to the leg and it will stagger and fall down, but you’ll have to be quick to hold it down.
  • When lifting small sheep over fences, rock them up and over on your knees, to save your back. Don’t try to lift heavy sheep. ACC figures show that over 40% of sheep farmers have bad backs!

Immobilising a sheep

Sometimes you may have to leave a sheep in one place after you have caught it, or immobilise it to put on the back of a vehicle or bike. Here’s a simple trick:
  • Take a length of baler twine as it comes off a bale of hay.
  • Leave it uncut so it’s really in a loop.
  • Tie one end of the loop around the hock of one back leg of the sheep.
  • Then tie the other end of the loop around the other back leg.
A loop of twine around each food above the fetlock
  • Then lift the loop over the sheep’s neck and it cannot move.
Pull the loop up over the sheep's head
  • Lay it quietly on the ground and it will be there when you come back.
  • Don’t forget to go back!
  • If you put it on a vehicle or bike, make sure it cannot roll off.
  • If you don’t have a piece of baler twine you may have to use your belt with whatever personal risks that brings! Align the hock on a back leg with the hock from the opposite front leg and tie the belt around both, or tie three legs together.
This is the best position to leave a sheep in as it can
belch normally and not get bloat

Droving sheep on the highway

  • With today’s traffic and motorists’ attitudes to livestock on the highway, this is a high risk business that should be avoided wherever possible.
  • Under the Transport Act 1962 and the Local Government Act 2002, local authorities are increasingly brining in Stock Droving and Crossing bylaws that will greatly restrict the movement of stock on a highway and certainly phase out stock crossings in favour of underpasses for dairy herds.
  • This is being driven by road safety issues but urban dwellers don’t like getting dung on their cars as they have heard about salmonella and campylobacter present in animal faeces. At least sheep produce less dung on the road than cattle do.
  • To avoid any legal problems in case of accidents or confrontations with motorists, you must be able to show that you have taken all due care and not deliberately placed motorists in danger. Be aware of this, as you may have to prove it in court, so make sure you provide large safety margins.
  • If you are forced to move sheep on the road, first check with the local authorities (district and regional councils) because their regulations vary in regard to the need for permits.
  • You may need to give 10 days notice of your droving plans and also submit a “traffic management plan” and get a permit. This may take some time to sort out and may cost money.
  • Local government bodies are concerned about damage to the highway and the verges, and large fines can be faced for breaching bylaws.
  • Droving within townships and on certain roads is prohibited and established stock routes must be used when designated.
  • If you have to cross a railway, you must inform the railway authority.
  • Stock movements are not allowed on the road during the hours of darkness or when visibility is less than 100m.
  • Don’t attempt to drive stock too far. About 10-12km/day is a good target distance.
  • Remember that when sheep first get on the road they will take off at a gallop and this can be the most dangerous time until they steady down.
  • When they settle down, let them proceed at a steady amble or walk to avoid excess feet wear on the abrasive road surface.
  • Stock need rest, feed and water at the end of each day’s journey. This will have to be arranged in advance.
  • Have plenty of support with people well ahead and well behind with large notices and flashing orange lights to warn traffic. Make sure they wear reflective safety vests and crash hats if they are on bikes or ATVs.
  • Be especially careful with the working dogs that move quickly and often get run over. Make them a reflective jacket!
  • Expect motorists to have little knowledge of how to drive through a mob of sheep so you will have to be very clear in your directions to help them.
  • Do not be tempted to damage a motorist’s vehicle in any way through frustration as experience shows that you’ll generally lose the court case.
  • Have vehicle support for any animals that go lame and a first aid kit handy for both animals and humans.

OSH requirements
  • Your sheep farm and yards are “a place of work” and the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) legislation applies to everything that goes on in them.
  • The law says that the owner, lessee, sub-lessee, occupier and anyone in the vicinity must not be harmed by any hazard in the yards.
  • So to meet OSH requirements you need to go around the yards and first, Identify all the hazards, then secondly to Eliminate them. If you cannot eliminate them then you are required to take the third option and Isolate them.
  • A good example is an offal hole which is a hazard that you cannot eliminate, but you can isolate it with an effective cover and fence.
  • The key point is that if anyone has an “accident” which is generally interpreted by farmers as needing medical treatment or time in hospital, then the person in charge of operations at the time could be liable if hazards were found that had not be identified and dealt with.
  • You have to be aware of risks to people who visit your yards such as truck operators, stock agents or veterinarians .
  • Check with your nearest OSH office of the Labour Department for full information. We have got to take this seriously from now on, as we kill and maim too many people every day on farms and court proceedings can be very traumatic and costly.

Sheep welfare issues
People and organisations interested in sheep welfare list the following topics of concern. They are not in any priority order.
  • Lameness. The pain caused by sore feet, so sheep graze 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 and then pushed down a port hole out into cold weather.
  • 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 so many lambs die.
  • Lamb mortality. Lambs lost through hypothermia in late storms which always get TV coverage.
  • Castration. The pain of having rubber rings put on testicles or having them cut out with a knife using no anaesthetic.
  • Docking. Having the tail removed with a rubber ring or severed with a hot cauterising iron and no anaesthetic.
  • Transport. The stress of long journeys in land vehicles, and even longer journeys by ship through the tropics.
  • Dipping. Making sheep run through or stand in shower dips 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 the rear end of Merino sheep by hand shears with no anaesthetic.This has been banned in New Zealand from December 2010.
  • Parasites. The stress and poor health caused by both internal and external parasites.
  • Untreated diseases. Sheep left to suffer disease without any treatment.
  • Starvation. 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 during lambing. Animals may be left to suffer or die in this system.
In warm dry conditions, sheep need shade


  1. I cannot believe no one has commented yet on this site. The pictures are good but most of all, the information is plentiful and focused.

    As a new shepherd, I will be coming back a lot to learn more, thank you!

    laurie (Mother Mastiff)
    Silk Hope Fiber Farm
    Reg Gulf Coast Native Sheep
    North Florida, USA

  2. I have found your information very helpful.
    Thank you very much.
    I am required to study sheep for a week for my degree, and wasn't really feeling motivated for it.
    But after reading this it has put me into a good mindset so thanks.

  3. The scriptures refer to the Lord Jesus Christ as the Great Shepherd, and we who believe and follow him are the sheep of HIS pasture (Psalm 23)(John 10:1-18). I was doing research on the nature of the sheep, and the role of the shepherd. Thank you for an excellent resource of actual & factual information that I may use in allegorical relationship with the spiritual connotations. You are an excellent shepherd. Billie Robinson, SC, USA

  4. Thanks for excellent information I have not found until this point.

  5. Hi, Kiwi shepherd/shearer here. I'll be saving this link and sharing it with as many people as I can.

    This should be compulsory reading for anyone considering owning sheep.

  6. As a learner with sheep & lambing, i have found all of your information very interesting & helpful, thankyou.

  7. Thanks for the excellent information. Very useful and informative. A down to earth common sense approach covering husbandry and welfare issues, all of which can be applied back in the UK.. Ta muchly x

  8. Great site. Have you any information on methods/equipment to stop sheep jumping and or crawling under fences?

  9. This is a really good resource for information.

  10. We're new to keeping sheep and our ewes have just lambed, so your site has been really informative. Before we started with our pigs we went on a pig-keeping course, which was excellent, but there are no similar courses on keeping sheep here in NW England. We shall continue to refer to your excellent site for advice. Many thanks.