How to handle sheep properly and safely

Handling sheep is not that difficult, especially when you understand that sheep are herd animals and have a keen awareness that they are often prey. They are rarely aggressive but can be easily startled and may panic.

The herd instinct

Sheep do best when kept together with other sheep, as such it is easier to move a herd of sheep than it is to move one sheep on its own. If you need to work with one specific animal, and unless it is sick and contagious, it is best to have at least one other sheep with it, at least within its sight as this will lower the animals stress rate.

Prey animals

Unless tamed through being raised as orphans or other means, sheep generally respond in fear when pushed. Quite simply, they move away from people at a speed according to the threat they feel. You can use your body language to push them where you want them (assuming you do not have a dog to help herd the sheep).

Friendly sheep

This can be the bottle babies, or just sheep whose handlers are very involved with them. These sheep can often be controlled and led by halter, or even bribes of food, to go where the handler wants them to go. Obviously having friendly sheep means less stress on the handler, and the sheep.

Handling rams

A ram is an intact male sheep. Some rams can get aggressive, particularly at breeding time (the fall) or when they feel threatened. A ram will typically use its head to “butt”, or may respond by trying to flee. It is important that the handler be aware of the rams tendency to be more aggressive (although typically not as much as billy goats).

Handling ewes and wethers

Ewes, unless heavily pregnant, and wethers (gelded males) can be handled normally, for which you will see below.

Pregnant ewes

One should use care when handling heavily pregnant ewes. They should not be rushed, tossed around, or bumped, recklessly.

Lambs

The young sheep are easy to handle, simply because they are small and do not weigh much, but, unless orphaned, they will be most concerned with returning to their mothers. Lambs can be picked up and carried much like a dog, depending on the size of the lamb. They should not be carried on their back as this is stressful to them.

Horned animals

While most people think only of some rams as having horns, some ewes will also have horns. If the horns are good they can be used somewhat as “handles”. Never use weak horns this way as they can be broken. A rope can be used around both horns to hold onto a sheep if need be. With exotic breeds, such as the Jacob, you must be careful not to get yourself in a positioned where you can get hit by one of their extremely long horns.

Catching and handling

Sheep should never be caught by grabbing a front leg. Injuries are known to occur this way. Sheep can be grabbed by a hind leg but with care. At this time the sheep should be secured, held properly, as holding its leg for a prolonged time will cause stress, and potential for injury. Typically people reach over the sheep, grabbing its inner flank area, and rolling it into a sitting position as when being sheared. Otherwise a rope can be put around its neck, but only if one is careful not to choke the sheep in this way.

Remember

If you own sheep, and are involved with them regularly, they will be less frightened of you. Once they know you are catching them they will start to be more fearful, never get frustrated, this is their natural behavior.