This resource has been A member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff has given this resource a full review and provided updates where necessary. by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of September 6, 2022
Like many animals, sheep need an indoor shelter to keep them safe and comfortable as well as ample safe outdoor space on which to roam, socialize, and graze. Though one sanctuary’s sheep The indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests. might look quite different from another’s, there are some important things to keep in mind in order to give sheep the best life possible. In addition to these considerations, we recommend checking out our resource on animal-centered design to get further inspiration for sheep resident housing!
Indoor Living Spaces
Sheep require access to indoor living spaces in order to ensure their comfort and safety. People have employed many different materials and designs for housing sheep, but we believe it’s best that they have access to a solid, four-sided structure, such as a pole barn, rather than a less robust solution. The indoor space must:
- Provide enough space for normal activity and healthy social dynamics
- Provide appropriate traction and be easy on the joints
- Be able to maintain a safe temperature and provide proper ventilation
- Provide protection from the elements year-round
- Be arranged so that all residents can be safely closed inside as necessary (such as to perform medical treatments or to protect against predators or unsafe weather conditions)
Up next, we’ll look at some of the various components and considerations for indoor living spaces.
How Much Indoor Space Do Sheep Residents Need?
An important aspect of sheep housing is providing residents with enough space, but there are many factors to consider when determining how much space individuals need – 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 increase the size of their living space if that’s what they need.
A few sanctuaries offer recommendations about the amount of indoor space sheep need, but keep in mind that these are minimums and may not reflect the amount of space they strive to provide for their residents. Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries also offers space guidelines, but rather than offering specific dimensions, these guidelines focus on the behaviors and activities the space should accommodate.
The following recommendations are provided merely as a starting point:
- Farm Sanctuary– Their 2018 A domesticated animal that is used by humans either for their body or what comes from their body. Farmed animals have fewer regulations governing their welfare than other species in many countries. Care Conference resources recommend a minimum of 20-25 square feet of space per sheep.
- Catskill Animal Sanctuary– Their Sheep Fact Sheet recommends at least 25 square feet of indoor space per sheep or goat.
- Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries– Their Standards For Ruminant Sanctuaries 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.”
Be sure to think about what behaviors and activities the space needs to be able to accommodate, and use the above dimensions as a starting point, keeping in mind 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, group dynamics, and climate should be considered when creating a space or determining a space’s capacity.
The sides of the structure must be able to withstand the elements as well as resident activity such as rubbing and headbutting. Walls also must prevent drafts, protect against precipitation, and help maintain an appropriate temperature within the space. Wall material options will depend a bit on the type of structure you are using and typically includes metal, wood, and in some cases concrete block. Metal siding is typically not a great option for sheep because it can result in a space that gets too warm or too cold and when damaged results in sharp edges. Concrete block walls don’t breathe well, so when used as the primary material for walls, can result in spaces that become too humid. In general, we prefer wood walls over both metal and concrete block.
One con that comes with wood siding is the ongoing maintenance required. In addition to needing to repaint or restain wood, boards can break or rot and may need to be replaced. When choosing paints or stains, be aware that some may contain ingredients that are toxic to sheep. Look for those labeled for use on barns or fencing and labeled as animal or “Another term for farmed animals; different regions of the world specify different species of farmed animals as “livestock”.” friendly.
Doors And Gates
Like the walls, doors that residents have access to need to be designed so as to withstand typical resident activity. Wood sliders are commonly used to cover larger entrances, such as those designed to accommodate a tractor or other equipment. Slider doors hang from a track and can be moved into a closed, partially open, or fully open position.
Residents may inadvertently open or close sliders, so having latches installed that can secure the sliders fully shut, partially shut, and fully open may be necessary. You may want to protect fully-closed sliders with a heavy-duty gate installed on the inside of the slider to prevent residents from rubbing against or slamming the closed slider, which could result in damage. This setup also allows for residents to be closed indoors or prevented from using the entrance (by closing the gate) while still leaving the slider open to allow for airflow.
Sliders should have a device (such as a stay roller, as shown above at the bottom of each slider above) to prevent the wind (or a resident) from swinging the slider door outward or inwards. A swinging slider could seriously injure a resident or human and could also come off its track, posing further risk to anyone near it.
For smaller entrances, a wooden door might be a better option than a slider. A thick wood door that can securely latch shut may not need to be protected by a gate. When opened, doors should be latched or otherwise secured in place to prevent them from being pushed closed by the wind or a resident. Similarly, make sure closed doors are latched or secured so they cannot be inadvertently opened. Using dutch doors that allow for just the top or just the bottom to be opened is a good option if you want more control over airflow.
Gates used in resident spaces must be heavy-duty. Avoid lightweight aluminum gates, as these can be easily damaged by residents or equipment. While most gates come with a chain that can loop around a fence post to hold the gate closed, we recommend also installing a heavy-duty latch. Some sanctuaries/caregivers choose to use both a latch and the chain loop so that gates are secured with two methods. We recommend this double latching system because it gives you added protection should one of them fail.
Flooring And Bedding
Flooring for sheep should provide appropriate traction and be easy on the joints. Concrete is a fairly common recommendation in the farming community because it can be easily cleaned and can help wear down hooves, but for sanctuary residents, housing them on concrete long-term is not ideal because it is hard on the joints. The addition of textured stall mats can be used to provide some cushion (and traction if the concrete is too smooth) but this will make cleaning even more labor-intensive since mats will need to be regularly removed to clean underneath them. In larger spaces, the addition of stall mats may not be feasible due to the cost of the mats and the labor required to keep the space appropriately clean.
Wood is another option that sometimes comes up regarding sheep housing. Wood is difficult to clean and will require lots of maintenance. If plywood flooring begins to rot, it can pose a safety hazard for residents who could injure themselves if their foot goes through an area of rotting floor. When used with certain bedding options, wood flooring also may not provide enough traction, particularly when wet with urine.
We believe that the best flooring for sheep is dirt. Although dirt floors will require regular upkeep and can be more difficult to thoroughly clean than some other substrates, they will provide your residents with more cushion than concrete and better traction than wood. Proper drainage is key. You want to avoid a negative slope around the structure so that water does not run into the space. Raising the dirt floor so that it is higher than the surrounding ground will ensure water runs away from the structure. Some soil types might have poor drainage, in which case you’ll need to dig out the soil and replace it with materials that drain well. We recommend working with an expert in your area to determine what is necessary based on the specifics of your soil and terrain.
Over time, dirt floors will develop recessed areas where dirt has been removed during the cleaning process or due to resident activity. Be sure to watch for these recesses and fill them in as needed. The divots can pose a safety hazard to residents who may find themselves reclined in a recessed area and unable to stand. Additionally, these recesses, particularly when concealed by bedding, can result in human injury.
The addition of bedding in sheep indoor spaces will not only help keep residents comfortable, it also makes it easier to keep spaces clean. Straw and wood shavings are commonly used bedding options, though there may be other suitable options in your area such as hemp or When using flaxseed as an animal supplement, it should be ground, not served whole. Consider using a clean coffee grinder and grinding the seed right before feeding for greatest effectiveness!. Avoid bedding that could cause injury, as well as those made from potentially toxic materials (such as some types of woods). In order to prevent illness, avoid bedding that may contain harmful pathogens or is dusty (dusty bedding isn’t good for your residents or the humans who care for them).
We highly recommend that sheep structures have electricity (installed by a licensed professional). This will allow you to have proper lighting and will also allow you to use heating or cooling equipment when needed and to use care-related equipment that must be plugged in. In areas where temperatures dip below freezing, this will also allow you to install autowaters that have a heater to prevent water from freezing. All wires should be protected in conduit to prevent rodents from chewing them, which is both a headache and a serious fire risk. Electrical outlets should have constant-use covers to keep them dust-free, and you’ll want to keep them up out of the residents’ reach.
Ensuring your residents are both comfortable and protected from temperature-related illnesses are important aspects of care, but what you need to do in order to achieve this will depend on your climate and the individuals for whom you care. Experienced caregivers likely have a good idea of the temperatures in which their residents are comfortable, but it’s important to remember that some individuals may not be able to remain comfortable in the same conditions other residents of their species are comfortable. Your residents’ age, breed, hair coat, body condition, and overall health can affect their ability to tolerate certain temperatures. Therefore, it’s important to frequently observe your residents for signs they may be too warm or too cold, so you can make adjustments.
Warm Weather Considerations
When the weather is warm, steps should be taken to keep residents cool.
- Industrial circulating fans can be used to keep living spaces cool and to keep air flowing (make sure fans and cords are out of the residents’ reach!)
- Misters can be used in conjunction with fans, but keep an eye out that resident spaces don’t get too wet. You may need to spot clean areas near the mister more regularly.
- Provide lots of cool water. Depending on how you are providing water, you may need to change it out more often to avoid water becoming warm. Be sure to have lots of water available in the area where residents are relaxing.
- Provide lots of shade. If the indoor space has sliders on multiple sides, you might want to arrange them throughout the day so that direct sun is blocked, while still allowing for airflow. Outdoors, temporary shade structures can be constructed to give residents additional areas to relax. Alternatively, permanent shade structures could also be built.
Cold Weather Considerations
When the weather is cold, steps should be taken to protect residents and keep them warm.
- Eliminate drafts in the living space (while still allowing for ventilation). Before the cold weather hits, it’s a good idea to check out resident living spaces, looking for gaps that would create a draft. If gaps have developed between the siding and the ground, these should be filled in or blocked (you might be able to use an intact bale of straw to block gaps, but you’ll likely have to replace the bale regularly). For board and batten strip siding, check that all gaps between boards are fully covered with the batten strip, and replace any broken boards or strips. During cold weather, keeping doors fully or partially shut (if possible, having doors that face the prevailing wind closed) will also help keep the space warmer and prevent a draft. In order to allow residents to come and go as they please while still reducing a draft, some folks use thick plastic strip curtains (like those used in warehouses or walk-in coolers) to block the wind.
- Provide lots of clean, dry bedding to protect residents from the cold floor.
- Sheep produce body heat during the process of rumination, so having plenty of access to hay during cold weather is important. Keep in mind they may go through more hay when the weather is cold, so be prepared to restock their supply as needed.
Proper ventilation is imperative year-round, but particularly in the winter. Without proper ventilation, spaces can become too humid or wet and ammonia levels can rise, putting residents at risk of respiratory illnesses. Keep in mind that if you live in a colder climate, you will need to find a way to provide adequate ventilation without creating too much of a draft. Ventilation can be achieved via open windows and doors, and during the winter, the use of dutch doors or windows above the height of the residents can allow for ventilation without creating a draft. The use of an exhaust fan can also help with ventilation.
When temperatures are below freezing, you’ll also have to ensure your residents continue to have access to fresh, clean, unfrozen water. You can read more about how to do this here.
Outdoor Living Spaces For Sheep
In addition to indoor spaces, sheep require access to outdoor spaces that can keep them safe while still providing the freedom to explore and perform natural sheep behaviors. It is difficult to talk about outdoor spaces without also considering the dietary needs and preferences of sheep, so be sure to also check out our resource on the subject if you haven’t already so you know what types of vegetation to include and exclude. In a sanctuary setting, grasses should typically make up a large percentage of pasture vegetation, with a smaller percentage of legumes and other forbs, but the specific plants that will work best will depend on your climate, soil type, and other factors, so it’s a good idea to connect with your local cooperative extension for guidance. When designing outdoor spaces, be sure to:
- Provide residents with enough space to perform natural behaviors and to promote healthy social dynamics
- Consider their foraging behaviors and preferences as well as their other natural behaviors, and provide the type of space necessary to honor these preferences and behaviors
- Familiarize yourself with the sheep predators in your area and design the space accordingly so as to keep residents in and predators out
How Much Outdoor Space Do Sheep Need?
Just as we don’t have a set recommendation for the amount of indoor space sheep need, we also cannot provide a specific recommendation for outdoor space that is guaranteed to work universally. The same organizations that provided indoor space recommendations also offer recommendations for outdoor space, but remember that these are minimums and may not reflect what they strive to provide for their residents.
- Farm Sanctuary– Their 2018 Farm Animal Care Conference resources recommends 1 acre of land for every 3-6 sheep as a starting point.
- Catskill Animal Sanctuary– Their Sheep Fact Sheet recommends providing ½ an acre of land per every pair of sheep.
- Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries– Their Standards For Ruminant Sanctuaries recommend a minimum area of 150 sq. ft. (14 sq. m) per sheep.
If you are hoping your residents will be able to get most or all of their food through grazing in their outdoor spaces, this will be an important factor in how much space your residents need since not every acre of land is going to provide the same amount of forage (and even on the same acre of land, there will likely be some variation in terms of the amount and quality of forage available at different times of year). You’ll also need to account for the fact that vegetation will need time to rest and regenerate. This means that in addition to thinking about the total amount of space your residents need while outdoors, you’ll also have to think about how many different spaces they must have in order to allow for vegetation to regenerate (and in areas where parasites such as barber pole worm are a concern, you’ll also have to factor in ways to lower your residents’ risk of exposure to parasites).
Also be sure to consider the conditions that come with different seasons in your region, as this may impact how much space residents have during different times of year. While residents may want to venture further out when the weather is nice (especially if there are fresh forages available), these vast spaces may be difficult to monitor for dangerous conditions which may come with freezing temperatures or heavy precipitation. If these conditions are an issue in your area, you may need to provide your residents with different amounts (and types) of space during certain times of year.
Pasture management, which entails being able to move residents on and off areas as needed to prevent overgrazing and damage to vegetation, plays an important role in sheep resident care. In order to achieve this while still providing your residents with outdoor access and grazing opportunities (when available), you should set up the space so that there are multiple outdoor spaces they can rotate through. This way, when one outdoor space needs time for vegetation to regenerate, residents can be moved onto a different space, ideally one with vegetation suitable for grazing. Having a rotation system allows for continuous, or close to continuous, access to fresh grazing during the times of year when fresh vegetation is readily available.
When figuring out how to lay out your residents’ outdoor spaces, there are numerous options, and what works best will be dependent on your needs and available land. In regions where the fresh forages are only available seasonally and where snow and ice are common, you’ll want to ensure residents have access to an outdoor space that is safe for them in the winter and that they can remain on while forages grow in the spring.
Once you’ve got your residents’ space set up, be sure to keep it clean and properly maintained to ensure their continued comfort, safety, and health! You can read more about cleaning and maintenance here.
Bedding Options For Livestock And Equines | U Mass Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
Farm Gates: Design Considerations | University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
Do Sheep And Goats Get Cold? | OSU Sheep Team (Non-Compassionate Source)
Heat Stress In Sheep And Goats | Maryland Small Ruminant Page (Non-Compassionate Source)
Preparing Goats And Sheep For Winter Weather | MSU Extension (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.