Sheep Behavior: The Complete Guide to Understanding Sheep

When you’re raising sheep, there are many considerations you will need to make in their housing and care.From what kind of barn to build, how much bedding to use, and what the best kind of fencing is for predators, you’ll have your hands (and mind!) full as you begin to make these important decisions.

Regarding predators, sheep can be particularly vulnerable.Although they aren’t the smallest kind of livestock you can raise, they have a docile, group-dependent nature.This makes them easy targets for hungry animals like coyotes, wild dogs, bears, and wolves.

Aside from building a strong, secure fence that will both keep predators out and keep your sheep contained, there is one other trick you can try to keep your flock safe – companion animals.Raising companion animals with your sheep poses many benefits.

Here’s what you need to know.Why Keep Sheep Companion Animals?There are several good reasons to keep companion animals with sheep.

It takes at least about five sheep for them to display their natural flocking behaviors.

Sheep can be kept with other livestock, and although they will always prefer their own kind, keeping sheep with other animals is a great way to improve their socialization and maximize your use of space.Sheep kept with other animals are more friendly, calmer, and easier to manage.

One of these is parasite prevention.Allow other animals with different grazing patterns, like cattle, to eat and live alongside sheep.You’ll have a reduced parasite load in the soil and fewer health problems to deal with.

Raising sheep companion animals is never a bad idea, but it’s especially beneficial if you are thinking about raising just a couple of pet sheep.Again, sheep should not be kept alone or even in small groups, so introducing other species will allow you to keep them socialized and entertained without having to raise a large flock of sheep.

Best Companion Animals to Raise with Sheep1.

DonkeyDonkeys are often raised with sheep as livestock guardian animals.

These animals rely on sight and sound to detect intruders, sending out loud brays to scare away predators and let the farmer know a predator is about.

Donkeys are known as being great friends of sheep, bonding with them easily.As long as you introduce a donkey early on, you shouldn’t have any problem bonding the group together.Even if you wait until a donkey is older to introduce it to your sheep, it still shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks for them to get acclimated to each other.

Jennies and foals tend to be the best companions for sheep.

2. CattleAnother option is to raise cattle with your sheep.

Some people employ rotational grazing, allowing cattle to graze a pasture first and then allowing the sheep their turn.

They get along well, especially when introduced to each other at a young age.They can even be raised in the same barns, although you might want to pay special attention to your sheep at lambing time (the cattle are so large it is easy for them to insert themselves into situations where they aren’t needed!).

3. Chickens, Guineas, DucksPoultry are often raised with sheep as well.Guineas are particularly useful if you’re hoping to have an alert system in place for when intruders appear – guineas are loud and will sound the alarm for you.

Chickens, on the other hand, are great at keeping down parasite loads.Whatever the case may be, poultry makes a good choice for raising with sheep.Although the species won’t necessarily intermingle and interact with each other (they will more or less just coexist) there are several reasons to consider keeping these animals with your sheep, regardless.

4. Horses Horses and sheep also get along quite well, particularly if they are introduced to each other at a young age.

Sheep will generally keep to themselves, showing submissive behavior around the horses.

5. Llamas and AlpacasLlamas and alpacas are frequently raised with sheep as livestock guardian animals to help protect sheep.

In these cases, it is usually gelded (castrated) males that are kept with the sheep, but unbred females also make good options.

If you choose to raise these animals with your sheep, it’s important that you only introduce one.

If you have multiple male llamas or alpacas, they’ll bond with each other instead of the sheep.Some people also recommend introducing them just before lambing, as this can allow for a very special bond to develop between the llama and the sheep.

Not all llamas and alpacas will guard (this depends on the individual animal and the species) but in general, they can serve as pleasant companions and friends for your sheep.

6. Goats Goats are often raised with sheep because the care requirements for the two are so similar.

Dogs make great companions for sheep and as long as they are introduced and trained when they are puppies, they will not harm your sheep.They can be somewhat standoffish toward people but will do an excellent job keeping your sheep and lambs company and protecting them from any predators that wander by.Considerations With Sheep Companion AnimalsOf course, raising additional animals with your sheep isn’t totally free from work.

You will still need to put in a bit of extra effort to make sure your companion animals are well cared for.

Although most of the animals listed above can eat the same kinds of food as your sheep (hay and pasture, for example) that’s not true of all of them on the list.Livestock guardian dogs, for example, are omnivores.

If you’re raising more creative, wily animals like goats with your sheep, the fence should be more or less airtight.

You may find it helpful to check out this article on multi-species grazing as you get started, too.

It will give you more information on how to raise animals of different species together – including sheep!

Everything You Need to Know About Sheep Behavior

While sheep may just seem like empty-headed livestock animals, many studies have been done to discover and prove the complexities of sheep behavior and emotions.

sheep are prey animals and social animals; these are two main aspects that determine how sheep act and respond to every situation.

In this article, I’ll give an overview of basic sheep behavior and how they communicate so that you can better understand your flock.

Sheep Are Prey Animals

The one factor that plays the most part in determining how sheep act and react to things is that they are prey animals.

Every part of a prey animal’s nature is designed to help them evade predators and threats that may want to cause them harm.

First and foremost, sheep are prey animals.

It’s important to remember this as you interact with them since much of their reactions will be based on whether they think you’re a predator or a friend.

To learn more about sheep are prey animals, keep reading.

Common Predators of Sheep

As small livestock animals, sheep are more susceptible to predators compared to larger livestock like cattle and horses.

While sheep can run and flee, there’s very little they will do to protect themselves from threats.

Here is a list of the common predators that like to eat sheep for supper:

While sheep may be more susceptible to predators, there are some things you can do to help give them an extra level of protection.

One thing you can do is invest in a livestock guardian animal.

Livestock guardians are animals known to protect flocks of sheep and fight off predators that may try and come near.

Some of the best livestock guardian animals include large dogs, donkeys, and llamas.

To learn more about livestock guardian animals, check out my article What Are the Best Livestock Guardian Animals?

Sheep Anatomy as Prey Animals

As prey animals, the anatomical design of sheep enables them to stay alert and aware of danger while also being able to flee and move quickly if need be.

These attributes enable sheep to survive and thrive even as prey animals.

Here are some features of sheep that help them survive as prey animals:

Animals with monocular vision usually have eyes on the side of their head.

Sheep have exceptionally good hearing.

Most prey animals have large ears that enable them to capture more sound.

This can help sheep stay more alert for unfamiliar noises.

Sheep have cloven hooves, meaning that their hooves are split into two separate toes.

Hooves enable sheep to propel themselves forward if they have to flee from danger.

Sheep Are Flight Animals

No, sheep can’t fly.

The most heavily relied upon way that sheep will escape predators is by fleeing.

Whether it’s an attacking predator, an unfamiliar human, or a loud noise, a sheep’s instinct will be to run away.

Because of the flight instinct, sheep will naturally be jumpy and wary.

If you have recently purchased new sheep and they seem unsure of you, it’s because they haven’t decided whether they see you as a threat or as a friend.

Sheep Have Flocking Instinct

Prey animals tend to live in social groups that provide them with more awareness and protection from predators.

By living in a group, sheep are able to keep more eyes and ears open for predators.

A predator is less likely to attack a group of animals, but will instead go for stragglers that don’t rely as much on the social environment.

Sheep will feel safer with a group of other sheep or livestock animals.

When you look at sheep out in a pasture, you may notice how close together all the animals tend to stay, even if they are grazing or resting.

Sheep understand the concept that they are stronger together.

Sheep Are Social Animals

Sheep Are Social Animals

Another aspect that plays an important role in the behavior of sheep is the fact that they are social animals.

While this factor does stem from the prey animal classification that sheep have, it does play a major role in their lives as well.

Many studies have been done to learn about the complex emotions that sheep have and the bonds they form with each other.

A large portion of the behavior your sheep displays will be based on their social nature and attachment to their flock.

To learn more about the social characteristics of sheep, keep reading.

Sheep Live in a Flock

As mentioned in the previous section, sheep have a strong flocking instinct that provides them with security and protection from predators.

Because of this instinct, sheep tend to live in a group with other sheep known as a flock.

In a flock, the sheep will stick closely together, as predators will be more apt to pick off stragglers than they will be to attack the main flock.

Oftentimes, where one sheep goes, the others will follow.

Smart sheep will learn to stay close to the flock, no matter where the flock is going.

Sheep Have Maternal Bonds

It’s not unusual for sheep to recognize their dam (mother) or siblings even after living separated for years.

Imprinting is when a lamb forms an intensely strong bond with the animals it interacts with as a newborn.

Through the bond, the lamb will have a strong trust and attachment to this animal or human.

If a lamb is hand-raised by humans, it could imprint on a human and come to trust humans more than it would its own species.

Either way, this close bond enables sheep to recognize and remember each other years down the line.

If kept in a pasture with their mother or siblings, you’ll notice that sheep will tend to graze alongside their family members rather than sheep they weren’t raised with.

You Should Have 4 – 5 Sheep to Provide a Flock Community

Since the flock is such an important aspect of a sheep’s life, you may be wondering how many sheep are needed to provide a flock community.

If you plan on raising sheep, you will need to provide your sheep with a group that will make the sheep feel secure and protected.

To maintain a proper flock setting, you should have at least 4 – 5 sheep.

With this number, the size of the flock can deter predators from coming closer and provide the sheep with plenty of social interaction.

In this setting, sheep will form a close bond with each other and stay together no matter where they go.

A Sheep Should Not Be Kept By Itself

Since it’s in a sheep’s nature to live in a flock, you should not keep a sheep by itself.

Without companions, a sheep will feel more vulnerable to danger and will become more jumpy and wary.

With all that said, sometimes a sheep will need to be separated from the flock for medical purposes.

This can help them still feel apart of the flock even though they are isolated from the other sheep.

To learn more about why you should not keep a sheep by itself, read my article Can You Keep a Sheep By Itself?

Sheep Can Co-Exist With Other Livestock Animals

Besides being social with each other, sheep can be very social with other livestock animals.

Many farmers like sheep because they can easily co-exist with other smaller and larger livestock.

Sheep are known to get along well with goats, cows, and horses.

Sheep are often gentle and passive, so they tend to stay out of the way of the larger livestock animals.

Other farm animals can be used to provide a group atmosphere where your sheep can feel safe.

Keeping sheep in with larger livestock animals may do even more to deter predators, as most predators won’t approach a group of large livestock.

Other animals can also provide the social setting your sheep need to feel safe and connected.

How Do Sheep Communicate?

Since sheep can’t talk, they must use other means of communication.

The most common ways sheep communicate with each other and humans is through body language and vocal cues.

When it comes to raising sheep, being able to recognize what your sheep are trying to communicate can enable you to take better care of them.

Here is a list of sheep communication terminology you should know:

Bleat: a vocalization often used to communicate hunger or to locate other sheep.

This is the common “baaing” sound normally associated with sheep.

You may also hear this call when sheep are distressed or isolated.

Charge: often a sign of aggression, this is when sheep will lower their heads and run towards a threat, whether it’s you, another sheep, or a dog.

This move is often used by dominant sheep as they try and move other sheep away from food or a mate.

Headbutt: this is when a sheep will hit another with its head.

You can see this behavior as young lambs play or as rams try to establish dominance over one another.

Pawing: sheep will paw each other to signal they want the other to move out of the way.

Snort: this is a vocalization that usually demonstrates frustration or agitation in sheep.

To learn more important sheep terminology, check out my article Essential Sheep Terms: Sheep Terminology Reference Guide.

There are many other ways sheep communicate other than the words listed above.

One of the most important things to be aware of is how calm and relaxed your sheep seem.

If there is something wrong, you can usually tell by the way your sheep acts.

An anxious or distressed sheep will pace, bleat often, and could stop eating.

If you notice these behaviors, you should try and figure out why your sheep are acting in such a manner.

Can Sheep Bond With Humans?

Since sheep tend to have such a strong bond with each other and the sheep in their flock, you may be wondering if a sheep is able to bond with a human.

lambs that are hand-raised by humans will learn to rely on humans for their needs and can even imprint on their caretaker.

While imprinting will form cause the sheep to form a strong bond with their caretaker, it can also make it more difficult for them to assimilate back into a flock and live alongside sheep instead of humans.

Sheep can also form attachments to their handlers.

Animals learn by repetition, so the more sheep see you and spend time with you, the more they’ll start to learn you’re not a threat.

Sheep are known to have dog-like behavior once they learn to trust their handlers.

Are Sheep Smart?

Sheep are often thought of as empty-headed animals, constantly worried and running away from danger.

Here are some interesting facts about the intelligence of sheep:

Sheep Can Recognize Facial Expressions

Studies show that sheep are able to recognize the facial expressions of their human caretakers.

Sheep Grieve Over Death of A Flock Member

Sheep are known to grieve over the loss of their offspring or other flock members.

Sheep Can Be Trained

Believe it or not, but sheep can be trained.

Sheep are often trained to be led by a halter and lead rope.

Sheep are often known to be especially responsive to clicker training.

You can teach many things with clicker training, from teaching your sheep to accept human contact to having them perform fun tricks!

Sheep can also learn their name and recognize the voice of their handler.

Sheep are complex animals that have a wide range of emotions and behaviors.

Mistaking sheep for simple creatures can deter you from taking proper care of your animals.

Before you invest in a sheep flock, it’s important to familiarize yourself with how sheep communicate and why they behave the way they do.

We have many articles about how to care for your sheep.

How to Care For Sheep: Essential Guide For Beginners

How Many Sheep Should You Have Per Acre?

Can You Bathe a Sheep?