Sheep Behaviour & Humane Handling

Have you ever had to take part in a ‘safety fire drill’, or had to evacuate a building? If the answer is ‘yes’ to either of these, you will probably recall a sense of stress, possibly panic, associated with the incident. Imagine then, that you are a sheep quietly grazing, or comfortably cudding, with the flock in a familiar field, when suddenly a ‘wolf’ rushes towards you, barking and scattering the flock.

Negative and positive imprinting

sheep-following-bucketBoth of these are examples of how a stressful incident can imprint itself on the brain, reinforcing a natural instinct to avoid similar incidents in the future! A flock of sheep will always be easier to manage if they have been trained to follow, rather than be driven (or chased, as they would see it), and will learn to associate their shepherd with pleasant events, such as being fed, or led to fresh pastures.

Flocking, following and flight

Sheep, like many prey animals, have learned that if they flock together they present the appearance of a single organism, from which a predator will find it difficult to single out an individual. This herding instinct is used by the shepherd to move the flock, with or without a dog; but there is one other key factor to success.

Within the flock, you will find that some individuals are more assertive, and if you observe them closely over a period of time, you will start to recognise a hierarchy with a dominant ewe at the head. She’ll usually be the first to the feed trough, can be harder to catch, and will show aggression by foot stamping if cornered or faced by a dog, especially if she has lambs at foot. Once you’ve identified the ‘flock leader’, you can use her dominance to your advantage by showing her the bucket of feed first, and then once you have her attention, the rest of the flock will follow. However, these sheep ‘dynamics’ are only observed in flocks comprising at least four sheep, which suggests that smaller numbers may experience stress by not being able to form a cohesive social group.

Smart sheep

Contrary to popular belief, sheep are neither stupid nor have a ‘death-wish’! In fact, research has shown that sheep have highly developed powers of facial recognition and recall for both ovine and human faces. They also appear to find some faces more attractive than others! They will quickly learn who handles them considerately, or regularly feeds them, and who is rough. For example, a bad experience with a shearer or vet will never be forgotten!

Sheep also have well documented deductive intelligence and quickly learn how to find their way through a complex maze system. Furthermore, when they repeat the task some weeks later, not only do they avoid the ‘dead-ends’ but they also complete the maze more quickly – demonstrating their ability to learn and memorise.

There’s also evidence that sheep make friends with specific members of the flock, often those with a similar level of status in the flock hierarchy. If reunited following separation, they will greet one another affectionately, using similar vocal ‘rumbles’ to those used with lambs.

What sheep see and hear

sheep-eye-CUSheep have very wide peripheral vision and, depending on the degree of facial wool, some breeds may actually be able to see behind themselves! However, their depth perception is less well defined, making it difficult for them to judge the depth of a gully, for example. Due to a limited light sensitivity, they also dislike moving from light areas into dark, which they may perceive as a hole in the ground. Sheep have very acute hearing, and will react unpredictably to loud noises such as a barking dog, or shouting.

What do sheep find stressful?

Anything that involves leaving their familiar surroundings causes stress, and being in close contact with what they imagine to be a predator, which may be both the sheepdog and the shepherd! When one individual is then separated from the flock, its anxiety levels will soar – so do try to carry out management tasks in the company of other sheep. If one does have to be kept in isolation, due to quarantine or illness, ensure they have at least one companion.

Being caught and tipped upside-down, as for foot treatment, is probably one of the sheep’s least favourite activities, and I’m not sure that a conventional ‘turn-over’ crate lessens this. I have seen demonstrations of a ‘clamp’, where the sheep is immobilised by two pressure plates against its sides, and anecdotally the sheep do seem to relax and struggle less! Affordable alternatives are the sheep sofa (sometimes called a stretcher) and the headstall, both of which immobilise the sheep allowing the shepherd to carry out tasks such as footcare and dagging.

Handling: plan ahead and allow sufficient time

When you need to gather the flock in order to carry out routine treatments, first make a plan: where is the best place to carry out the task? What equipment will you need? How to bring the flock in? The aim is to minimise stress for both the sheep and the handler, so make sure that you’re in the right frame of mind, have a clear idea of how you will carry out the tasks, and allow sufficient time.

Calm and effective handling methods

The rule is to work with the sheep’s natural instincts and avoid practices that will cause anxiety. For example, don’t ask the flock to squeeze through a narrow entrance, instead use hurdles to create a funnel into the work area; this works even more effectively if you use boarded hurdles so the sheep aren’t distracted by what’s going on outside. Similarly, a visual ‘dead-end’ or a too-narrow entrance will make the lead sheep stop; her anxiety will be picked up by her followers who may turn back in the direction they came from.

  • Move slowly and quietly
  • Avoid dark shadows in the handling area
  • Avoid corners or sharp turns
  • Sheep will always move uphill more readily than downhill

Handling areas – good and bad associations

sheep-handling-systemMost smallholders will have a specific area where it’s convenient to gather and treat the sheep. Ideally, it will have an area of hard standing that won’t turn into a quagmire in wet weather, and some form of rudimentary holding area, with a race and pens so that sheep can be sorted, separated and treated as required. If there’s an undercover area, all the better for sheep and shepherd, as it means management tasks can be carried out regardless of the weather.

Sheep will quickly learn to associate an area with positive or negative experiences; for example, if they are regularly fed in the handling area, they will be happy to enter quietly of their own volition. If however they are driven into the handling area by a poorly trained dog and roughly handled, they will remember this bad experience and be very reluctant to return for more such treatment in the future.

Handling equipment

For the small flock keeper, the cost of commercial handling equipment can seem prohibitive, but don’t underestimate the value of making a relatively small investment that will last for years, repay you in terms of efficient, stress-free handling and retain a re-sale value if you decide to either upgrade or sell-on.

… and finally

The most significant single influence on the welfare of any flock is the shepherd, who should develop and carry out an effective, humane routine for the continual care of the flock. Sensitive handling will pay dividends, whereas careless handling, such as grabbing a sheep by its wool, will not only cause pain but also will bruise the carcase and reduce its value.



This article first appeared in Smallholder Magazine, January 2013 - written by Carole Youngs of The Smallholder Series.




For further husbandry and management information, see our DVD series 'Sheep on Your Smallholding'.