University of Illinois Extension

Illini SheepNet / Meat GoatNet Papers

An Introduction to Sheep Behavior
Richard Cobb
01/22/1999

A youth project involving sheep can be a wonderful experience for a young person as well as their family. The project teaches that dedication and hard work is rewarded. Having an understanding of sheep behavior can greatly add to the success of the project by allowing the young person and their family to realize that the sheep reacts the way it does because of instinct. By accepting these instincts and using them to your advantage a great deal of stress both to the animal and the people can be avoided. Lets look briefly at some basic facts about sheep.

Sheep are Not Stupid

Contrary to what you may have heard or even expressed yourself, sheep are not stupid. They rank just below the pig and on par with cattle in intelligence among farm animals. Sheep react to the situations they are placed in according to instincts that have been developed over centuries. While it can be argued that domestication has decreased their instinctive behavior, they still show them in many ways, sometimes daily.

Sheep will Run From What Frightens Them

In the overall scheme of things sheep are grazers, which means that before domestication, they obtained their entire feed supply by grazing grass and shrubs. At that time their only means of survival was to run from danger and to band together in large numbers for protection.

Sheep are Gregarious

By gregarious, we mean that sheep band together and pretty much stay together when grazing etc. This isn't because they particularly like each other, although they are social animals, but rather for protection. This instinct is stronger in fine wooled sheep such as the Rambouillet and decreased in black faced sheep like the Suffolk, but it is there to some degree in all sheep.

Even with domestication, sheep retain these defense mechanisms, they run from perceived danger, and they band together for protection. Exploitation of these instincts is what makes the Border Collie so valuable a worker. Sheep see the dog as a predator, or danger, so they band together for protection and move away from the danger. By controlling the dog, a shepherd actually controls the flock.

Sheep will Follow Each Other

You've heard the expression, "Get one to go and they will all go." This means that if one sheep will move then the entire flock will follow. This is because of their gregarious instinct, the desire to stay together for protection.

Sheep will Move Toward Another Sheep or Friend

Again, because of their instinct to stay close together sheep will move toward another sheep or a perceived friend. Often times a friend can be a person, particularly if the person feeds the sheep. By using this instinct, shepherds have controlled sheep movement for centuries. In this case the sheep will follow other sheep that are actually moving to see a friend (the shepherd who feeds them). By exploiting this instinct, the shepherd can move sheep from the barn to the pasture. The secret is to allow the sheep that come to you to actually eat grain or they will soon figure out that they are being fooled and will not respond.

Sheep Maintain a Flight Distance Between Themselves and Others

Just like humans, sheep like to maintain a distance, or safe zone, between themselves and others. Flight distance is defined as the space between themselves and others the sheep will tolerate before moving.

The flight distance varies a great deal depending on the situation the sheep or human is in. In a normal situation, when the sheep is relaxed, the distance is small. However, if danger in the form of a dog or a strange person appears then it is greatly increased and the sheep moves away.

By working with your sheep daily, you will decrease the flight distance of the sheep as it relates to you. This is because you are perceived as a friend and the sheep accepts you.

Most people wash their show flock and then let them dry before blanketing them. If the shepherd follows the procedure of taking one sheep from the drying pen and trimming and blanketing it and returning it to the drying pen then the following can and does happen. The blanketed sheep (lets call him Harry), is returned to the pen all decked out in his new blanket and hood. The other sheep in the pen immediately panic at the sight of this "MONSTER" that they have never seen before (actually Harry has been out of the pen for a half hour but the blanket, and particularly the hood, makes him look like a monster) and react in the only way they can to stay away from it and run in fright. Harry, not knowing how terrifying he appears to his friends, sees them run and naturally thinks that there is danger and so he tries to join up with his friends for protection by running after them. This only terrifies his friends more as they think Harry is coming to eat them and they run faster and faster to stay away from him! Usually this chapter ends with a bunch of exhausted animals that learn to tolerate one another all over again. Kind of like parents and their teenage children. One thing that helps the sheep situation is to remove the hood on Harry's head to allow the other sheep to see his face. Sooner or later the hoods will need to go on but by that time this seems to help slowly introduce the new sheep (Harry, who isn't new at all, but the others think he is) into the flock in the drying pen. Besides, by that time everyone will be blanketed and the sheep can adjust to that before the terrifying hoods go on.

We have talked about some of the basic instincts of sheep. In order to better understand why sheep do what they do is best to realize the following as well:

Sight

  • Sheep see in color
  • Poor depth perception
  • Unlimited peripheral vision (320 degrees)

Sound

  • Sheep have excellent hearing
  • Loud and clanging metal noises scare them

Another phenomenon that always fascinates me is that a ewe, docile and scared of a dog all year long will become extremely aggressive toward a dog right after birth. Sometimes, although not often, the ewe will be aggressive towards a shepherd, so it is best to be prepared. We leave the dog in the office when dealing with birthing ewes.

Finally, never trust a ram, leave him alone, do not play or tease a ram at all. If you play with the ram by scratching it's head or push on its head then you are challenging the animal and it is only normal as a ram thinks to meet your challenge and put you in your proper place in the pecking order. A playful ram becomes a mean ram in time and he is a liability that can be expensive in terms of injuries to yourself or your pocket book when medical or lawsuit bills are paid. Leave the ram alone, but always be sure where he is. If you are visiting a flock and you enter a pen or pasture ask the shepherd if there is a ram present and identify where he is and continue to watch him as long as you are in the pen or pasture.