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Sheep welfare

We’re concerned about the welfare of many farmed sheep. Take a look at what sheep need to keep them happy and healthy, the different elements of sheep farming in the UK, key welfare issues, and how we’re working to improve the welfare of sheep at all stages of their lives. 

Sheep behaviour and needs

Understanding the natural behaviours of sheep can help explain their needs. 

Feeding – sheep spend most of the day alternating between periods of grazing (eating grasses and low-growing vegetation) and resting/ruminating (chewing the cud). Sheep only sleep for around four hours a day.

Social – sheep are highly social animals. They like to be around other sheep they're familiar with and find it stressful to be isolated from their flock. They form strong social hierarchies ('pecking orders') within their flocks and sometimes show aggression (head butting) to maintain their status.

Avoiding predators – sheep flock closely together whenever they feel threatened and try to maintain a 'flight distance' between themselves and a potential threat. They have good eyesight, with a wide field of vision, and accurate hearing, which help them spot possible threats. Because they're prey animals, sheep have evolved not to show easily recognisable signs of suffering. This means people often don't spot the subtle changes in behaviour that may indicate sheep are in pain or distress.

Sheep intelligence – although popular culture often portrays sheep as unintelligent, scientific evidence shows they can form complex social relationships within their flocks and have an extremely good learning ability and memory.

Adaptations to cope with the weather – sheep's wool contains a waxy substance called lanolin, which helps them stay dry in wet weather. Some breeds are known for their hardiness and ability to cope with bad weather, though this is not true of all breeds or ages. Sheep often choose to seek out shelter. They have a similar tolerance to warm weather as humans do, and they pant when they are heat stressed.

Sheep farming in the UK

In 2023, there were just under 32 million sheep and lambs in the UK, with the total sheep breeding flock containing around 15.4 million breeding ewes. In 2022, 13.3 million sheep were slaughtered for meat in the UK.

Sheep flocks are reared in lowland, hill and upland locations, so different areas of the country make best use of the different breeds, land and weather conditions. Here's more on sheep farming in the UK.

Breeding – ewes (female sheep) are usually mated (known as 'tupping') with rams (male sheep) in October or November. Rams are sometimes fitted with 'raddle' harnesses. These have different-coloured dye pens attached to them so the farmer can see which ewes the ram has mated with and when.

Lambing – most lambs are born in late winter or spring, although some breeds naturally produce lambs at other times of the year. Some artificial techniques can bring the breeding season forward.

Outdoors – many lambs are born outside, particularly those in hill or upland flocks. Extra shelter, such as straw bales, is often added to the fields. Many flocks are gathered and brought down to lower, more sheltered land before lambing.

Indoors – indoor lambing is common for lowland flocks. Good housing facilities and management help prevent disease and heat stress problems. Lambing indoors can be stressful for ewes, as they prefer to seek isolation before giving birth. However, indoor lambing can reduce the risk of lambs dying from hypothermia or exposure, and it often makes it easier for stock-keepers and vets to check and treat the animals.

Rearing – most lambs spend their lives on pasture, but some may be transported to different areas to overwinter on grass. These are called ‘store lambs’.

Transport and livestock markets – sheep can be frequently transported throughout their lives and are often sold via livestock markets. This can compromise their welfare, due to repeated loading and unloading (a stressful process for most livestock), poor handling and noise exposure at markets, and long periods without access to food and water.

Slaughter – most lambs/sheep are slaughtered between 10 weeks and six months of age, though some store lambs may be 14 months old at slaughter. 

Sheep welfare issues

Here are some of the reasons why we're worried about the welfare of sheep.


Lameness can have many causes. Common ones are scald, foot rot and CODD (contagious ovine digital dermatitis), which are painful infections that aren't being prevented or successfully treated in many flocks. Lameness is sometimes considered an inevitable part of sheep farming, although many causes can be controlled and sometimes even eradicated from a flock.

Castration and tail docking

Both castration and tail docking procedures are painful and are generally carried out at an early age without pain relief.

  • Male lambs are often castrated, mainly to make them easier to manage in later life.
  • Young lambs often have their tails docked to help keep their rear ends clean. This reduces the risk of flystrike, which is a serious welfare issue.

We believe these procedures don't have to be routine. For example, many producers who keep some males intact as a separate group find they 'finish' (become ready for slaughter) more quickly and to a better specification. Sheep can be bred to have naturally shorter tails, and – when combined with the appropriate fly and parasite management – this can reduce the need for tail docking considerably.

Where tail docking and castration are unavoidable for welfare reasons, we believe pain relief should be provided.


Sheep are prey animals who can be easily frightened, stressed or injured by inappropriate handling. They should always be handled carefully and considerately, and should not be unnecessarily isolated from other sheep for long periods.


Sheep suffer from both external and internal parasites.

  • External parasites, such as fly larvaes, 'sheep scab', other mites, ticks and lice can cause sheep severe discomfort and distress and, in the case of diseases like flystrike, can be fatal if not spotted and treated quickly.
  • Internal parasites, such as worms and liver fluke are becoming resistant to anti-parasite drugs, so farmers are encouraged to use sustainable methods to control worms, such as using drugs only when needed and prioritising pasture management instead.


Most breeds have wool that grows continuously, so adult sheep need shearing at least once a year to help reduce the risk of external parasites and keep the sheep comfortable. Shearing has to be carried out carefully and sympathetically to avoid problems such as handling-stress and injuries. It's also important to make sure shorn sheep are managed correctly to protect them from weather conditions.

Improving sheep welfare

Here are some of the things we're doing to improve sheep welfare.

Developing welfare standards for sheep

We have developed detailed welfare standards for sheep. These are detailed welfare standards based on scientific evidence and practical farming experience. They are regularly updated to reflect the latest research and knowledge and are used by the RSPCA Assured scheme, and many other organisations, as a reference.

The RSPCA welfare standards cover every aspect of the animals' lives, including feed and water, environment, management, health care, transport and humane slaughter/killing. They're designed to ensure that all animals managed following the standards have their welfare needs met and a good life.

Engaging with governments, retailers and sheep farmers

We take every opportunity to put forward our views and concerns for the welfare of sheep to decision makers, including government, retailers and farmers.  

We are also a member of the Ruminant Health and Welfare Group in England. This group contains members from all parts of the sheep industry and is designed to identify the major issues affecting sheep health and welfare in England and improve these conditions through a series of industry-wide initiatives.

Scientific research into sheep welfare

Scientific evidence is an important input when finding practical solutions to sheep welfare problems, and is invaluable when we’re developing our welfare standards. For example, in the past we've funded research into foot rot control methods and commissioned an educational video outlining the various conditions causing lameness in sheep and looking at how to diagnose, treat, prevent and even eradicate those conditions completely.

Reducing livestock worrying by dogs

We have worked with the National Sheep Association and National Farmers' Union to distribute signs and educational posters throughout England and Wales asking dog owners to keep their dogs on leads and under control near livestock. We have also developed the Operation Recall initiative with Cheshire Police and Naturewatch Foundation to address the underlying causes of livestock worrying in rural locations.

Find out how you can be a responsible dog walker to protect the welfare of sheep.

Find out more