Creating A Good Home For Sheep

A large countryside pasture with four sheep on it, the closest sheep looking at the camera.

Updated October 20, 2020

Like many animals, sheep need ample safe outdoor space on which to roam, socialize, and graze, in addition to a dedicated indoor shelter to keep them out of the elements when necessary. Though one sanctuary’s sheep living space might look quite different than another’s, here are some important guidelines to keep in mind in order to give sheep the best life possible.

Keep It Safe!

If you are bringing new sheep into your life, you also need to ensure that you have an appropriate quarantine space to keep you and your existing residents safe!

How Much Space Do Sheep Residents Need?

When creating living spaces, it is important to ensure that your residents have enough space. There are many factors to consider when determining how much space sheep need; there is no magic number we have to offer.  Not all residents are going to do well with the general recommendations offered online, or even those offered by established sanctuaries, so you’ll need to be prepared to expand their living space if that’s what they need.  

Farm Sanctuary, Catskill Animal Sanctuary, and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries offer recommendations, but keep in mind that these are minimums, so you should strive to provide more space to your residents.

Farm SanctuaryTheir 2018 Farm Animal Care Conference resources recommend “at least 20- 25 square feet per sheep, and be sure the shelter has good ventilation.”  In terms of outdoor space they write, “We recommend 1 acre of land for every 3-6 sheep. This will vary depending on the quality of the pasture, but with good pasture this is a good ratio.”

Catskill Animal Sanctuary– Their Sheep Fact Sheet states, “ Allow at least 25-square-feet per sheep, and be sure the shelter has good ventilation and no direct drafts.” For outdoor space, it states “We recommend 1/2 acre of land for every two sheep. For warm weather, the fenced area must have plenty of shade.”

Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries– In their Standards For Ruminant Sanctuaries, it states, “Room dimension is dependent on intended purpose and/or duration of confinement, ensuring that ruminants can be housed with at least one other member of their species. Enclosures are large enough to allow all animals to comfortably move around and to lie down.”  For outdoor space it recommends a “minimum area of 150 sq. ft. (14 sq. m) per sheep or goat.”

Use these as a starting point, but be aware that there are many factors to consider when determining the amount of space needed to keep your residents comfortable and happy. Age, breed, sex, health issues, activity level, flock dynamics, climate, and type of outdoor space should be considered when creating a space or determining a space’s capacity.

Indoor Living Spaces For Sheep

People have used many different kinds of materials and structures for keeping sheep out of the elements, but we believe it’s best that sheep have access to a fully enclosed pole barn rather than a less resilient solution. Not only are pole barns less affected by inclimate weather and drafts, but they are also much easier to access and clean, which is very important for maintaining the health of any animal. Dirt or another slip-resistant material is crucial since slips and falls can lead to torn ligaments and joint damage in sheep. If the indoor living space floor is concrete, you should layer a half a foot of dirt onto the concrete floor or use rubber mats if necessary (which are safer than concrete, but will require quite a bit of daily cleanup). The floor shouldn’t be fully solid without any give if possible as it is harder on sheep joints. Bare concrete and hardwood floors are not acceptable for sheep.  In areas with larger predators such as wolves or coyotes, you should be able to close in the sheep at night while still providing air circulation.

You should provide a lot of dry and clean straw in a sheep’s living space. They love using straw as bedding, especially if they’re less woolen and living in a colder environment. You must remove and replace all wet and soiled straw to prevent serious health risks to sheep. There are products you can spread on wet areas such as hydrated lime alternatives like Sweet PDZ or Stall Dry to keep the living space free of moisture. If you cannot access straw, you can use other clean and replaceable materials such as wood shavings, but straw is best for sheep. Exhaust fans with locking shutters are very effective at keeping barns well-ventilated and dry.

Summer Considerations

A sheep’s indoor living space needs to be waterproof in both warm and cold conditions. Although they are fairly good at regulating their body temperature, excessive heat can lead to exhaustion and dehydration in sheep. They also become less tolerant of the heat if they are carrying a lot of wool. Therefore, you need to make sure that they can stay cool indoors in the summer. If it gets too hot for them to be comfortable, you can use fans, or if necessary, water misting fans, but you have to make absolutely sure you aren’t getting their living space too moist. Even basic circulating fans can be kept on automatic thermometers to keep residents comfortable, but you must ensure that all cables are safely secured! You should also look into having sheep safely shorn to make the summer more enjoyable for them.

Winter Considerations

In the winter, you have to ensure that their barn is ventilated, because humidity can quickly build up in a warm barn and cause dangerous pneumonia and bronchitis outbreaks in a flock. If your barn is draft-free, a sheep’s body (especially a flock of sheep in an appropriately-sized area) can provide a good deal of warmth. In fact, with an appropriately sized, draft-free barn, it is often possible to keep sheep warm enough by using additional bedding and keeping large doors closed (while still allowing for proper ventilation).

Sheep Coats

If you are caring for sheep who need extra help staying warm in the winter (such as smaller, health compromised, or older sheep), coats are a good way to help them stay comfortable. If you do employ coats, you must make sure that they do not impede or accumulate urine- this is a common issue with male sheep wearing coats with belly straps.  If the strap slips over the pizzle, it can cause serious issues such as Pizzle End Rot.  It’s good practice to check coats daily to ensure they are fitting properly and have not become wet.  Removing and checking under the coat weekly will help ensure you aren’t missing any issues that are hiding under the coat such as weight loss, external parasites (lice love hiding under the warmth of a coat), or other issues.

Condensation Concerns

If you feel condensation on the walls or ceiling of a barn in the wintertime, it must be immediately ventilated as it is far too moist for safe sheep habitation!

An oversized indoor living space is not ideal in the winter as they will have a harder time keeping warm in it. If absolutely necessary, you can use ceramic bulb heat lamps, but you must make sure to keep electrical cords out of reach from curious residents and make triple sure to keep heating elements clean and dust free! Barn fires are tragically common occurrences. Ceramic heating panels are a safer option, or if you have ample funding, radiant floor heating covered in dirt is the most ideal and safe heating solution for animals in barns. If you look into installing radiant floor heating, be aware that this system could cause an environment that is too humid depending on the type of enclosure you have.  Typically, wood structures will “breathe” better than concrete block or metal sided buildings, which are more likely to sweat and contribute to high humidity levels.  Additional ventilation may be necessary when using radiant floor heating.

Determine if and at what temperature the indoor water supply may freeze in the winter. Be prepared to empty waterers at night and provide fresh warm water for overnight access. Automated waterers with heaters on thermostats can be very helpful for keeping residents safely hydrated all season long.

Ensure that there is no risk of snow or ice falling off of structures and striking residents.

Outdoor Living Spaces For Sheep

Sheep need a safely enclosed outdoor space to spend time in throughout the day and graze if they so choose. The area must be fenced in with materials that a sheep can’t knock over or get stuck in. Four foot or taller 2×4 inch woven wire “no-climb” horse fencing (embedded a fair distance into the ground and buried if you are worried about sheep “rolling” up the fencing) is an ideal choice for keeping sheep safely within the space and keeping some predators out. Woven wire is preferable to welded wire which is more likely to break when put under pressure (such as by a resident rubbing against or head-butting the fence). Not only is a broken area of fencing a potential safety concern in terms of keeping residents safe from predators and safely within their living space, the broken fencing could also cause injury or entrapment. Be sure to consider the types of predators in your area- some, such as coyotes can climb or jump most fences, especially if they are desperate for food, so you may have to take additional compassionate precautions to keep your residents safe.  You need to regularly walk the perimeter of the fence to ensure that your fence does not have any gaps in it that a sheep can muscle out of or a predator can break into or under. It’s not recommended to use any kind of fencing that has openings in it where a curious sheep might get their head caught, such as field fencing, hog paneling, or widely spaced slatted fencing, and sheep cannot be around high tensile wire fences!

It’s very important that you know what kind of pasture the sheep are browsing on. Certain plants are toxic to sheep, and you need to ensure that any dangerous plants are removed from the pasture before a sheep is allowed to roam there. Even common ornamental plants like rhododendrons can be fatal to them. A local governmental agricultural department should be able to tell you what regional plants you need to protect sheep from. You also should not let a sheep graze on a high concentration of alfalfa pasture, as it is very rich in calcium and protein and can lead to urinary calculi and bloat, both of which are life-threatening conditions. If sheep graze on clover or (as previously not recommended,) alfalfa pasture and it rains, you should not allow them out to graze as wet clover and alfalfa can lead to bloat as well.

Ice Concerns

Sheep should never walk on any icy paths, as a slip could seriously injure them. Thus, you will have to create a slip-mitigation plan if it gets icy at your sanctuary. In addition, if you are de-icing areas that sheep walk on, do not use caustic or salt-based products as these can damage their feet!

Ideally, the outdoor space should consist of mixed grasses such as rye or orchard, a very small amount of legumes, and red or white clover. Pay close attention to the quality of the pasture and ensure it is can adequately sustain your sheep residents and supplement with grass hay if needed. If they’re relying wholly on pasture for their nutrition, a sheep needs at least 8 hours of grazing time per day. Sheep can fairly quickly strip a grassy area down to the dirt, which can lead to muddy conditions. If a sheep’s pasture is consistently muddy, make sure to provide ample space for the sheep to keep their feet dry. Chronically dirty feet can lead to foot infections. You should also have a shady area in their outdoor enclosure that they can access on the hotter days of the year. If there is landscaping at your sanctuary that you don’t want to be eaten, you should make sure to fence sheep away from them, because they are quite adept at defoliating all kinds of plant life!

Ideally, you should have two different pastures for sheep, so you can let one regenerate while the other one is in use. This way, it will never get too muddy or barren for the sheep, and can lower the chances of sheep getting infected by internal parasites.  Another way to prevent sheep parasites is to allow the sheep to graze on pasture with equines, or another species not affected by sheep parasites, or to let them graze on a pasture that has regenerated after being grazed upon by one of those species- goats don’t count because they share many parasites as sheep including the dangerous Barber Pole Worm.

It’s important for sheep to have free access to their indoor space so they can get out of the elements if they so choose, and they should always have access to a clean water source wherever they choose to spend their time!

SOURCES:

Sheep Care | Farm Sanctuary*

Sheep Fact Sheet | Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Standards For Ruminant Sanctuaries | Global Federation Of Animal Sanctuaries

Plants Poisonous To Livestock | Cornell University (Non-Compassionate Source)

Caring For Your Sheep | Follow Your Dream Farm (Non-Compassionate Source)

*As of the publishing of this resource, the online care guide does not reflect the updated information provided to 2018 FACC attendees.

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on June 22, 2021

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