How Sheep Are “Like People”: Sheep Form Strong Emotional Bonds

“Like people, sheep believe there is safety in numbers. When they lose a sheep-friend they love, they notice and may even show signs of grief. When sheep are isolated, they get lonely and can become depressed.”

Sheep are herd animals.  They have a special social dynamic that governs sheep-behavior and sheep-society.  In sheep world, there is safety in numbers.  There is comfort in sticking together. Staying in a herd is one of their defense mechanisms.  Once danger threatens, be it a coyote, wolf, dog, human, or anything else they are afraid of, sheep react by immediately bunching up in a herd, putting the youngest lambs in the center of the herd.  All herds do this the same way, whether the herd members number in the hundreds, or less than a dozen.

Even the newest lambs are already pre-wired to follow their mothers and other sheep, and are born with the ability to run fast enough to keep up!  I’ve seen a lamb born, and the mother startled by a dog at the same time her lamb landed on the ground,  start to run before the placenta was delivered.  The newborn lamb, wet with birth-goo, began to run immediately, keeping up with mom, even with his umbilical cord still attached to both her and himself!!

If, when a predator threatens, the nearest sheep does not happen to be the lamb’s mother, he will follow the closest sheep that is bigger, even if it is just an older lamb.  If the lamb follows another ewe who is not his mother, under normal circumstances the non-related ewe would either ignore or push the young lamb away, sometimes pretty roughly,  to discourage him from trying to nurse from her.  When the herd feels under threat though, even the ewes who have shoved certain lambs away from them before, will then allow them to run near, willing to provide  for them a sense of protection.  Lambs caught in a group together, away from bigger sheep, will bunch together and run as a little herd, the same way the whole flock will.  It doesn’t seem to be a learned behavior. It looks like instinct.

But this behavior also goes far beyond mere instinct.  That sheep form real, emotional bonds with other sheep means they also notice, and even grieve when a sheep they love suddenly dies or goes missing from the flock for any reason. The first ram I had, Mr. Horns, died unexpectedly right before a hurricane.  He got his horns stuck in some bushes at the very back of the pasture, far enough away we couldn’t hear him holler, while we were in the house, preparing for the storm.  We had made sure the sheep had free access to the barn, so whenever they felt the need, they would be able to seek shelter.  When we discovered Mr. Horns  a few hours after the storm, however, he was dead.  His neck wasn’t broken from struggling, and nothing had fallen on him.  There were no obvious signs of injury.  It seemed he had died from a shear sense of panic, (which can cause sheep to have a heart attach) unable to free himself from the bushes, and being alone in the storm.

Mercy, Grace and Joy, who had become use to hanging out with Mr. Horns, saw his body before we buried him.  They called to him, but not toward the decedent.  They called as if they were looking for someone whom they had lost, and they were trying to help him find his way back to them. They would call, then stand really still and listen, for a call that would never be returned by their forever-gone friend.   It was clear they didn’t view the familiar body as their lost friend.  They knew he wasn’t in there.  They spent several days looking for him, calling out to him from time to time, with less frequency each day, before they finally stopped.

The bonding has already begun.
The bonding has already begun.

When Joy had a lamb one year who was full term, but not alive, it seemed to make her very sad.  The birth had already occurred in the pasture by the time we discovered Joy and her lamb, and it was too late for us to do anything to help, even if it was something that could have been helped.  I buried her little lamb in the pasture, near to where he was born.  Joy stayed near that spot for several days, not wanting to leave it.  She didn’t graze as much.  She laid down a lot.  She didn’t have a fever or show any signs of physical sickness.  I think she was just very sad.

Likewise, a sheep left in isolation will show signs of depression, losing interest in eating or other normal sheep activity.  When it is necessary for me to isolate a sheep for one reason or another, I always put them in a place where they may either have the company of another sheep (neutered sheep are great to keep around for this purpose), or at least where they can be with in sight of other sheep.

When people new to sheep tell me how much they would love to have “a sheep”, I have to gently inform them that getting a single sheep is never a good idea.  A sheep needs at least one other sheep to bond to, to feel part of a herd.  Three or more is really best.

Like people, sheep believe there is safety in numbers.  Sheep know what it is like to feel fearful and anxious.

When they lose a sheep-friend or family member they love, they notice and may even show signs of grief.  When sheep are isolated, they get lonely and can become depressed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s