Updated June 15, 2019
Sheep can be affectionate, curious, and playful beings, but there are times when they may prefer to be left alone. Even the most docile sheep in your sanctuary might decide they need some alone time, and it’s critical to recognize the signs they’re trying to give you before caution turns to agitation, or worse. Even on a peaceful sanctuary pasture, frightened or upset sheep could cause injuries to well-meaning caregivers and visitors if their space is not respected. This is especially true for rams (unaltered male sheep) or recently neutered adult males, who are more likely to defend their living space and flock than other sheep!
Signs A Sheep Wants To Be Left Alone
In most circumstances, a sheep will simply walk away when they are uncomfortable with someone’s presence in their living space, but given a more confined space, a sheep will use many different tactics (typically in combination depending on their discomfort) to let you know that they don’t want you around at the moment. Signs that a sheep is uncomfortable include:
- Loud vocalizations as you approach
- Lightly to moderately pawing at the ground or stomping (can indicate anxiety or irritation)
- Arching their body
- Full body trembling or shaking
- Jumping to avoid closer contact
If a sheep does not feel like you’ve alleviated their discomfort, they may escalate their body language to include:
- Stomping aggressively at the ground
- Shaking their head up and down
- Getting into your personal space while maintaining a confrontational posture
- Attempting to bite, headbutt, or horn you
If a sheep tells you their discomfort through these signals, you should immediately demonstrate that you mean no harm by backing away slowly from them if appropriate. NEVER turn your back to a ram exhibiting this body language. While most sheep are not going to be in the position of causing serious injury to humans, large sheep or sheep with horns may cause harm if they feel they must to avoid danger.
Things That Make A Sheep Uncomfortable
Due to their natural instincts, there are a number of actions that you might have to take in a sanctuary environment that can make a sheep less comfortable. Here are a few of their instincts and abilities and how they may react to a disruption:
Like most herd animals, sheep have a flight zone. This is the area of personal space surrounding them where they feel safe and comfortable. Different sheep will have different sized flight zones, especially depending upon whether they’ve come from traumatic backgrounds; a skittish sheep might have a huge flight zone compared to the nearly non-existent flight zone of a docile resident. If you breach a sheep’s flight zone, they will likely walk away from you. If you go much more into their flight zone, they might bolt or display signs of fear or agitation that you need to respect in order to prevent a confrontation or further distress for the sheep.
Sheep prefer to naturally flock together to shelter from the elements and protect themselves from predators. If you need to single out or separate a sheep, it’s likely that the sheep might get depressed, lonely, or highly anxious. If you do need to separate a sheep, limit their alone time, and keep at least some of their favorite flockmates nearby if at all possible. When taking in sheep, always try to take in a pair of sheep at the least, with more than three preferable.
Sheep are sensitive to loud noises. Being yelled at, hearing barking dogs, or encountering loud noises can spook, agitate, and trigger flight and potentially defensive responses in wary sheep. Try to be very cautious with volume around sheep and keep talkative dogs away from them to prevent incidents.
If you’re caring for a mother ewe with a nursing lamb, they may be rightfully protective of their young. Provide ample space for the mother and lamb, never going between the two of them when possible. If for some reason you need to separate the mother and lamb, such as for a health examination, be very gentle in separating the two of them, and anticipate quite a bit of displeasure or distress from the mother. Only separate a mother and baby if you absolutely have to, and try to do so in a way that allows the mother and baby to maintain visual contact.
Sheep have a great sense of memory. If they have a negative experience (or were rescued from very poor or abusive conditions), they are likely going to keep that in mind whenever they face new experiences. If a sheep appears to always be defensive around humans, it’s possible that they’re just protecting themselves based on past experiences and need caregivers to give them more patience and personal space.
Although sheep have generally good vision, they have a poor sense of depth perception and details. This can mean that they are reluctant or frightened to enter areas where they cannot see or interact with something they haven’t observed before. If you must bring sheep to an area that they aren’t used to, or one that is darker than usual, be extra gentle and give them time to explore if possible.
Should I Train A Sheep?
If a sheep is consistently attempting to bully or intimidate you or other humans, they likely believe themselves to be above you in the flock order; whether a sanctuary wishes to put their human caregivers above an aggressive sheep in the flock order is entirely up to their Philosophy of Care. Some may believe that it’s better to let the sheep have full control of their space and not intervene in their social order. Others believe the safety of the humans at the sanctuary should be balanced with a sheep’s social autonomy. If you are consistently having visitors interact with a socially aggressive sheep, especially a horned one, it may become a liability issue should the sheep decide to demonstrate their dominance to an unsuspecting human. Most sheep aggression can be treated with neutering (which should be a standard procedure for all mammalian residents in a sanctuary environment), a water spray bottle, and some gentle reinforcement when negative behaviors like headbutting humans occur.
For the most part, it’s best to avoid encouraging any kind of headbutt play between the sheep and humans. While this may seem endearing when they are younger and smaller, when they grow up, they tend to continue to want to play like they used to, except now they could cause serious injuries! It’s best to discourage this behavior when they’re young.
Tips For Safely Handling A Sheep
Because of the importance of regular health examinations, sheering for certain breeds of sheep, and hoof trimming, it’s critical to ensure that you or your veterinarian can safely handle each of the sheep in your care. If they aren’t averse to humans due to past trauma, you can help accustom sheep to your touch by running your hands gently over their bodies, legs, and feet when they’re relaxed. Rough handling will only cause a sheep to struggle more, so keep a light touch!
To catch a sheep, you should gently corner them in an area (preferably with other sheep around to keep them calm). If absolutely necessary, you can hold a sheep’s horns to control them, but many sheep are not big fans of being handled this way. If you do handle a sheep by their horns, it must be by the base to prevent the risk of breaking a horn off. It’s unacceptable to pull a sheep by their wool! Some sheep may always require a second pair of hands during handling or require rope halter training to keep everyone safe. Sometimes a sheep will simply lay down when being handled; in cases like these, having a second caregiver cradle their head and pet them softly can keep them calm, but for some sheep this can cause further stress and discomfort.
You can employ a sheep hammock in order to help trim their hooves and conduct health checkups, but you must use caution not to injure those with intact tails. Be sure to learn how to properly lift sheep into the hammock, and be very careful with their back legs which can easily get caught behind the hammock leg. Continuing to lift a sheep into the hammock while their leg is caught in this way can result in serious injury. You cannot use a hammock with larger breed sheep, nor should you ever hammock a resident who may have abscesses in their respiratory system. Always pay very close attention to the breathing of a sheep who is in a hammock and remove them from the hammock immediately if you see signs of respiratory distress.
Understanding Sheep Behavior | Saskatchewan Sheep (Non-Compassionate Source)
Sheep Behavior | Sheep 101 (Non-Compassionate Source)
An Introduction To Sheep Behavior | University Of Illinois (Non-Compassionate Source)