If you are going to raise or own sheep, you should try to understand them. A good understanding of what is normal behavior will allow you to handle them for effectively and also to spot a problem before it gets too serious. The information contained in this document comes from a variety of sources including the University of Maryland website for ruminants as well as a variety of how to books for sheep.
Sheep have a strong instinct to follow the sheep in front of them. When one sheep decides to go somewhere, the rest of the flock usually follows, even if it is not a good "decision." The flocking and following instinct of sheep is so strong that it caused the death of 400 sheep in 2006 in eastern Turkey. The sheep plunged to their death after one of the sheep tried to cross a 15-meter deep ravine, and the rest of the flock followed.
Even from birth, lambs are taught to follow the older members of the flock. Ewes encourage their lambs to follow. The dominant members of the flock usually lead, followed by the submissive ones. If there is a ram in the flock, he usually leads. This instinct is "hard-wired" into sheep. It's not something they "think" about.
Sheep are a very social animal. In a grazing situation, they need to see other sheep. In fact, ensuring that sheep always have visual contact with other sheep will prevent excess stress when moving or handling them. According to animal behaviorists, a group of five sheep is usually necessary for sheep to display their normal flocking behavior. A sheep will become highly agitated if it is separated from the rest of the flock.
In addition to serving as a protection mechanism against predators, this flocking and following instinct enables humans to care for large numbers of sheep. It makes sheep easier to move or drive and enables a guardian dog to provide protection for a large flock. Domestication and thousands of generations of human contact has further strengthened this trait in sheep.
Domestication has also favored the non-aggressive, docile nature of sheep, making it easier for people, especially women and children, to care for sheep. Sheep were one of the earliest animals to be domesticated, and they have been thoroughly domesticated. It is doubtful they could survive in the wild, if a predator risk existed.
Sheep are a prey animal. When they are faced with danger, their natural instinct is to flee not fight. Their strategy is to use avoidance and rapid flight to avoid being eaten.
After fleeing, sheep will reform their group and look at the predator. They use their natural herding instinct to band together for safety. A sheep that is by itself is vulnerable to attack.
Sheep tracks are never straight. The winding of trails allows sheep to observe their backside first with one eye, then the other. Sheep can spot dogs or other perceived forms of danger from 1,200 to 1,500 yards away.
Sheep depend heavily upon their vision. Behavior scientists speculate that the placement and structure of the sheep's eyes are due to nature's designation of sheep as a prey animal. Sheep have a very large pupil that is somewhat rectangular in shape. The eyeball is placed more to the side of the head, which gives sheep a much wider field of vision. With only slight head movement, sheep are able to scan their surroundings. Their field of vision ranges from 191 to 306 degrees, depending upon the amount of wool on their face.
On the other hand, sheep have poor depth perception (three dimensional vision), especially if they are moving with their heads up. This is why they will often stop to examine something more closely. Sheep have difficulty picking out small details, such as an open space created by a partially opened gate. They tend to avoid shadows and sharp contrasts between light and dark. They are reluctant to go where they can't see.
For many years, it was believed that sheep and other livestock could not perceive color. But, it has since been proven that livestock possess the cones necessary for color vision. Research has shown that livestock can differentiate between colors, though their color perception is not equal to humans.
Sheep have excellent hearing. They can amplify and pinpoint sound with their ears. In fact, sound arrives at each ear at a different time. Sheep are frightened by sudden loud noises, such as yelling or barking. In response to loud noises and other unnatural sounds, sheep become nervous and more difficult to handle. This is due to the release of stress-related hormones. To minimize stress, the handler should speak in a quiet, calm voice. Sheep should not be worked in the presence of barking dogs.
Sheep have an excellent sense of smell. Their olfactory system is more highly developed than humans. Sheep know what predators smell like. Smell helps rams locate ewes in heat. It helps ewes locate their lambs. Sheep use the sense of smell to locate water and detect differences in feed and pasture plants. Sheep are more likely to move into the wind than with the wind, so they can use their sense of smell.
Since most of their body is covered with wool or coarse hair, only the sheep's lips and mouth (and maybe ears) lend themselves well to feeling behavior. This is why electric wires on a fence need to be placed at nose height of the sheep. The sense of touch is important in the interaction between animals. Lambs seek bodily contact with their mothers. Ewes respond to this touching behavior in many ways (e.g. milk letdown). Groups of animals that have body contact remain calmer.
Sheep have the ability to differentiate feedstuffs and taste may play a role in this behavior. There is no evidence to suggest that sheep can balance their own ration when provided with a variety of feedstuffs; however, they may be able to seek out plants that make them feel better.
Sheep have an amazing tolerance for pain. They do not show pain, because if they do, they will be more vulnerable to predators who look for those who are weak or injured.
Normal sheep behavior
Changes in normal behavior can be an early sign of illness in sheep. The most obvious example of this relates to the sheep's most natural behavioral instinct, their flocking instinct. A sheep or lamb that is isolated from the rest of the flock is likely showing early signs of illness (unless it is lost). Even the last sheep through the gate should be suspected of not feeling well, especially if it is usually one of the first.
Appetite is another strong indicator of health. Healthy sheep display normal eating and cud-chewing behavior. They will chew their cuds for several hours each day. Healthy sheep are eager to eat. They are almost always hungry. They will overeat, if we let them. Sheep bleat in anticipation of being fed and will rapidly approach the feeding area.
Lack of appetite is probably the most common symptom exhibited by a sick sheep. At the same time, food is an excellent motivator. Next to a good herding dog, a bucket of grain is usually the best way to gather and move sheep. Grain feeding tends to make sheep friendlier and less intimidated by people.
Sheep spend about fifteen percent of their time sleeping, but may lie down and rest at other times. Upon rising, they often defecate and stretch. A sheep that is reluctant to get up is probably in pain. A sheep takes a long time to lay down is probably in pain. A sheep that cannot relax is under stress. Teeth grinding is another common sign of pain in sheep.
Healthy Lamb Behavior
Healthy lambs nurse frequently, one to two times per hour during the first few weeks. A lamb that bleats all the time is probably hungry and not getting enough to eat. A healthy lamb usually stretches when it rises. Healthy lambs sleep 8 to 12 hours per day. At naptime, they seek out their mothers and will sleep as close to her as possible.
Healthy lambs are usually very active. Group play is very common. Lambs love to climb. They are naturally curious of their surroundings. This curiosity can lead to barnyard accidents, if there are risks present. As lambs get older, they spend less time with their mothers and more with their peers. They spend more time foraging for food. Play wanes after about four months.
While sheep are generally a docile, non-aggressive animal, this is not usually the case with rams, especially during the breeding season. Rams can be very aggressive and have been known to cause serious injuries, even death, to people. A ram should never be trusted, even if it is friendly or was raised as a pet. It is important to always know where the ram is and to never turn your back on him. Children should be restricted access to rams during the breeding season.
Head butting is both a natural and learned behavior in sheep. Classic head butting among rams is highest during the rutting season which precedes the onset of heat in ewes. It is a way for rams to get into physical shape for the breeding season and to establish (or re-establish) the dominance hierarchy. To discourage butting, you should avoid petting or scratching a ram on the head. Otherwise, the ram may see this as a challenge or aggressive behavior. In general, the ram sees you as part of the flock and wants to dominate you. One of my miniature cheviots broke my ribs when I was kneeling down to fix the mineral feeder and he got me from the side.
The only time ewes may exhibit aggressive behavior is after lambing -- to protect their young.
Smart or Dumb?
Sheep rank in intelligence just below the pig and even with cattle. They react to situations they encounter using instincts that have developed over centuries.
Due to their strong flocking instinct and failure to act independently of one another, sheep have been universally branded "stupid." But sheep are not stupid. Their only protection from predators is to band together and follow the sheep in front of them. If a predator is threatening the flock, this is not the time to act independently.
Hungry sheep on the Yorkshire Moors (Great Britain) taught themselves to roll 8 feet (3 meters) across hoof-proof metal cattle grids to raid villagers' valley gardens. According to a witness, "They lie down on their side or sometimes their back and just roll over and over the grids until they are clear. I've seen them doing it. It is quite clever, but they are a big nuisance to the villagers." [Source: BBC News, July 2004]
A study of sheep psychology has found man's woolly friend can remember the faces of more than 50 other sheep for up to two years. They can even recognize a familiar human face. The hidden talents of sheep revealed by a study in the journal Nature suggest they may be nearly as good as people at distinguishing faces in a crowd.
Researchers say, "Sheep form individual friendships with one another, which may last for a few weeks. It's possible they may think about a face even when it's not there." The researchers also found female sheep had a definite opinion about what made a ram's face attractive
There is a certain strain of sheep in Iceland known as leadersheep. Leadersheep are highly intelligent animals that have the ability and instinct to lead a flock home during difficult conditions. They have an exceptional ability to sense danger. There are many stories in Iceland of leadersheep saving many lives during the fall roundups when blizzards threatened shepherds and flocks alike.
According to researchers in Australia, sheep can learn and remember. Researchers have developed a complex maze test to measure intelligence and learning in sheep, similar to those used for rats and mice. Using the maze, researchers have concluded that sheep have excellent spatial memory and are able to learn and improve their performance. And they can retain this information for a six-week period.
The maze uses the strong flocking instinct of sheep to motivate them to find their way through. The time it initially takes an animal to rejoin its flock indicates smartness, while subsequent improvement in times over consecutive days of testing measures learning and memory.
New research is suggesting that sick sheep could actually be smart enough to cure themselves. Australian researchers believe that sick sheep may actually seek out plants that make them feel better. There has been previous evidence to suggest that animals can detect what nutrients they are deficient in and can develop knowledge about which foods are beneficial or toxic.