Sheep Behavior Fun Facts

One of my favorite things about sheep is watching them interact with each other and their environment. I also wanted to know more about reducing their stress level, because I believe a happy animal is a healthier animal. So I found a fascinating paper by Warren Gill, Professor, Animal Science department of the University of Tennessee. This paper gave me more insight into their behavior than any of the books I have read. Here are some of the most interesting facts I gleaned from the paper:

  • Sheep and goats were probably the second animal to be domesticated by humans, after the dog. It is estimated that they were domesticated 15,000 years ago.
  • Sheep graze an average of 5-10 hours per day, depending on weather and quality of the forage. The devote more time to eating than to any other behavioral activity (and any shepherd will tell you that when they are not eating, they are probably thinking about eating).
  • Sheep are awake about 16 hours a day and drowsy another 4 or 5 hours. They will sleep only about 3 or 4 hours. One night during lambing season I slept (or tried to) out in the lambing shed, and I was surprised at how much time they spent milling about and interacting with each other all night long. For a carnivore, it makes sense to be sacked out 20 hours a day, like a cat, but it wouldn’t do for a prey animal. Young lambs however sleep for 8-12 hours a day.

Nigel and his half-sisters hanging out

  • The time devoted to ruminating (chewing their cud) is about equal to, or slightly less, than the time spent grazing. Ruminating requires relaxation. It seems to be a bonding and “anti-boredom” activity.
  • Sheep have very dexterous lips. So they can pick off the youngest choicest leaves from trees, and pick out the particles they don’t like from their show lamb feed.
  • Isolated lambs will eat less than animals fed as a group, due to their flock instinct and possibly the effects of competing for food. It is better to keep two or more show lambs because a lamb in isolation is likely to be lethargic and have a poor appetite.
  • The best way to keep sheep calm and easier to handle is to handle them frequently. This makes a sheep less sensitive about their “flight zone,” which is the sheep’s personal space. Violating a sheep’s personal space makes her want to flee. All of my sheep have different flight zones — a couple have a large flight zone. A few won’t leave me alone! What has worked best for me is to give everyone their evening meal, and when they are finishing it up, to sit on an overturned 5-gallon bucket and just hang out. There is always one friendly and curious sheep who wants to find out what is up. Some just need to sniff and don’t want to be petted. Others enjoy a scratch. Pretty soon the shy ones are emboldened by the crowd and want to see what they are missing. Some sheep and lambs want to interact every day, some only feel like it a couple of times a week. Investing a few minutes a day where the sheep interact with people on their own terms, and aren’t being sheared, nail-trimmed, wormed, etc. will help build trust and make these necessary tasks easier in the future. It also makes them less easily startled when people have to go out into the sheep pen.

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