Sheep - key welfare issues


Ewe and lamb standing in a field © Andrew Forsyth / RSPCA Photolibrary

Causes of lameness include scald and foot rot, both painful bacterial infections. In many flocks these conditions are not being prevented or successfully treated. Lameness is sometimes considered to be an inevitable part of sheep production, but foot rot and scald can be better controlled and sometimes even eradicated from a flock.

Castration and tail docking

  • Young lambs often have their tails docked to help keep their rear end clean to reduce the risk of fly strike. 
  • Male lambs are often castrated, mainly to make them easier to manage in later life.

Both these procedures are painful.

Although these procedures are sometimes intended to try to reduce the risk of other welfare problems, they may not always be as necessary or justifiable as some believe. Where tail docking and castration are unavoidable for welfare reasons, we believe pain relief should be provided if a practical method is available.


Sheep are prey animals that 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.


External 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, even death if not spotted and treated quickly.

Internal parasites

Sheep can suffer from internal parasites such as worms and liver fluke. Some worms are becoming resistant to anti-parasite drugs, so farmers are encouraged to use sustainable methods to control worms, such as using drugs effectively and only when needed.


Adult sheep of breeds which have continuously growing wool should be shorn at least once every year, to help reduce the risk of external parasites and keep the animals comfortable. Shearing has to be carried out carefully and sympathetically to avoid problems such as handling stress and injuries. It is also important that shorn sheep are managed correctly to protect them from weather conditions.

Find out how you can help improve the welfare of sheep.

Did you find this useful?