Sheep are one animal that you usually don’t think of as taking to the water. They don’t seem particularly agile on land, and it is hard to imagine they’d be much better off in the water.
On the other hand, most mammals know how to swim in a pinch, and in the wild they may have to swim for any number of reasons. So, what’s the real answer: Can sheep really swim?
Yes, sheep can swim. However, they are not very good swimmers and their wool can cause problems for them. Generally, sheep only swim when they must, and will avoid the water when they can, though they are not afraid of water.
That makes sense. It is easy to see how sheep can get into trouble when they are in the water.
That being said, sheep in the wild will swim when they have to and might take to a river or creek for any number of reasons.
We will tell you everything you ever wanted to know on the topic and then some in the rest of this article.
Do Sheep Really Swim?
Yes, sheep can really swim, despite reports to the contrary. In fact, all mammals can swim to some degree or another.
It is a natural survival instinct that we share with our furry (or wooly) friends, sheep included.
Are Sheep Good Swimmers?
Not really. Some animals are better swimmers than others. For example, dogs and cats are good swimmers, but sheep are not.
Sheep can swim, but they have several major disadvantages.
Their woolly coats quickly become waterlogged, making it difficult for them to move through the water by weighing them down, slowing them down, and possibly even serving as a snag hazard on unseen debris.
Their legs are also relatively short, which combined with their hooves makes it hard for them to generate the power needed to swim.
In total, sheep will tire out quickly and are especially at risk of drowning in difficult, cluttered crossings, strong currents, or long swims.
Accordingly, sheep will try to choose a known, shallow crossing above all other factors when a crossing is required.
Sheep are further hampered by their lack of depth perception, making it quite difficult for them to judge the distance to the other side and also the depth of the water.
Do Sheep Have to Be Taught to Swim?
No. Sheep, like most mammals, know how to swim instinctively upon birth. However, they are not especially good at it and will avoid the water whenever possible.
However, sheep that are practiced or rather experienced swimmers generally do better and stay calmer in the water than ones encountering it for the first time.
How Do Sheep Swim?
Sheep swim in a typical “doggy paddle” for animals of their build. They move their legs in an alternating rowing pattern and try to push off the bottom when possible.
They aren’t fast, efficient, or graceful when in the water, that is for sure.
Wool Causes the Most Problems for Sheep in the Water
One of the biggest problems that sheep face when swimming is their wool. Wool is great at trapping heat and keeping sheep warm, but it does not serve them well in the water.
In fact, their wool can quickly become waterlogged, making it hard for them to move quickly and stay afloat.
The more wool, the more drag, making this an especially dicey prospect for large sheep or ones that have gone unshorn for some time.
In addition, the wool can act as a snag hazard, catching on branches or other debris in the water and potentially holding the sheep in place until they become exhausted and drown.
For this reason, it is imperative you keep sheep shorn when appropriate if there is any chance they might encounter water on your property or elsewhere.
Their wool might be the thing that dooms them when they have to swim for it!
Why Would Sheep Take to the Water?
So, we have established that sheep are just plain bad swimmers, and are well advised to avoid the water.
So, why on earth would a sheep willingly swim when in the wild, or anywhere else? A reasonable question and one that has several logical answers.
Though not afraid of water per se, sheep avoid entering it unless sufficiently motivated. Once sufficiently motivated, they will swim for it.
What are some things that might motivate a sheep to take the plunge?
- Danger: There may be a predator on their side of the water that they are trying to escape.
- Herding: They may be following other sheep that they trust and are crossing for some reason.
- Food: They may be crossing a river or stream to get at food on the other side.
- Mates: A sheep that is ready to mate might cross water to find new prospects.
These are all reasons why wild sheep will attempt a water crossing and remain reasons why domestic sheep will attempt it.
Consider, too that sheep are not terribly smart. Yes, they can remember faces and communicate with each other but these wooly weirdoes are not too bright.
A sheep might just try to cross for a reason known only to it, and because sheep naturally follow the leader the rest of the herd might follow.
For this reason you should never trust that your sheep “know” to avoid water for any reason. If water is a potential hazard on your property you must be prepared accordingly.
How Far Can a Sheep Swim?
Sheep cannot swim far. Though there are no highly scientific metrics that have measured their capacity for distance, we have plenty of anecdotal evidence that they can only swim for short distances before they get in trouble.
It should be noted that some video of sheep “swimming” across wide rivers is actually fording, not swimming.
Low rivers, creeks, and other shallow crossings allow sheep to stumble, bound, and splash across while keeping their footing, more or less.
Sheep that are acclimatized to using these crossings may give onlookers the impression they are swimming but this is a far cry from their ability to actually swim any appreciable distance.
When sheep must swim under their own power do not expect them to go far.
Do Sheep Like Being in the Water?
No, as a general rule. Sheep are not built for swimming and they know it. When they are put in deep water they tend to panic, thrash about, and generally make things harder on themselves.
They are also known to bleat excessively when wet, which is likely just their way of expressing displeasure at the situation.
While some sheep may take to water more readily than others, and every once in a while you may find a sheep that seems to enjoy itself in the water, this is not the rule.
Are there Any Breeds of Sheep that Are Great Swimmers?
Some breeds of sheep are stronger swimmers than others, but this does not mean that they are strong swimmers in general.
The vast majority of sheep breeds are terrible swimmers and should be kept away from bodies of water as much as possible.
What Breeds are Bad Swimmers?
Pretty much all breeds are marginal swimmers. In general, the larger the sheep and more impressive the wool, the worse they are at swimming.
What Dangers Do Sheep Face While Swimming?
Plenty. The most obvious is drowning, of course. A sheep that cannot touch the bottom is in serious trouble and will likely go under quickly when they tire.
Even if they don’t drown, sheep can suffer from aspiration when they get into trouble and start to struggle.
Lastly, hypothermia is a problem as long as the sheep is in the water, though they will warm up quickly when they get out thanks to their wool, which can insulate them even when soaking wet.
Can Sheep Swim in Cold Weather?
They can still swim in cold water, but this is even more ill-advised.
Cold water will quickly sap a sheep’s strength, aggravating their difficulties, and their wool won’t warm them when they are actually in frigid water. This is a recipe for disaster.
It is possible for sheep to become hypothermic when in cold water and then be unable to warm up in a timely fashion once they are out, leading to death.
What Should I Do if My Sheep Fall in the Water?
The best thing you can do is to get them out as quickly as possible. If they are in danger of drowning then you may need to go in after them.
This is not ideal, and should only be done if you yourself are a strong swimmer and have a flotation device handy but it is better than losing a sheep.
Can You Put Your Sheep in a Pool?
You can, but you really shouldn’t. Unlike most other animals, sheep never seem to enjoy spending time in the water. They don’t like getting wet and they are very bad swimmers.
If you do put them in a pool, make sure it is shallow enough that they can easily stand on the bottom and that there is a way for them to get out easily.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.