Sheep Welfare - Understanding Sheep Behaviour | RSPCA - RSPCA
We're working in a number of different ways to try to improve the lives of as many sheep as possible. To work out how farmers can best meet the needs of sheep and ensure their welfare, it's helpful to understand the natural behaviour of sheep. Let's take a look at what sheep need to stay happy and healthy.
Sheep are grazing animals. They eat grasses and other low-growing vegetation and ruminate (chew the cud). They spend most of the day alternating between periods of grazing and resting/ruminating. Sheep only sleep for around 4 hours per day.
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 (butting) to maintain their status.
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 helps them spot possible threats.
Because they're prey animals, sheep have evolved not to show easily recognisable signs of suffering. This inexpressive nature means that people often don't spot the subtle changes in behaviour that may indicate sheep are in pain or distress.
Scientific evidence shows that sheep can form complex social relationships within their flocks, and have extremely good learning abilities and memories. In one study reported by the BBC, sheep were able to remember pictures of the faces of at least 50 other sheep over a period of several years.
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 and ages. Sheep often choose to seek out shelter. Sheep have a similar tolerance to warm weather as humans do. They pant when they are heat stressed.
Read more on the key issues of sheep welfare.