Sheep are usually thought of as among the most docile livestock species. Their very name is even a euphemism for harmless and unresisting passivity. But as any longtime shepherd will tell you, sheep can be ornery, even downright hostile at times.
It sounds incongruous with everything we know about them, I know, but it is true.
And this isn’t something you should laugh at either; sheep can be quite large and physically powerful, and being rammed or headbutted by one can cause serious injuries, especially when they have horns.
Not for nothing, aggressive sheep are sure to disrupt your operations around the farm or homestead, and you don’t want that either.
For these reasons the only thing to do is to learn how to handle an aggressive sheep. You won’t be laughing after you tangle with one unless you know what to do.
Lucky for you we are here to help with a guide that will tell you everything you need to know. Keep reading if you don’t want that sheep to push you around.
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Wait, Are Sheep Really Aggressive?
Generally, no they aren’t. Sheep are thought of as docile for good reason, and whenever they are threatened they would much prefer to flee rather than fight.
That being said, like pretty much every mammal, there are times and conditions that can provoke a sheep to anger and attack.
Surprisingly, this is even more common in domestic sheep that might be a little too familiar or comfortable with people. Like the saying says, “familiarity breeds contempt”.
So, if a sheep feels like it is constantly being harassed or pushed around by humans it might start to develop an aggressive attitude.
Why Would a Sheep Be Aggressive?
More often than not, the root cause of aggression in sheep is fear. When they feel threatened, socially or physically, they will lash out as a way of protecting themselves or their young. This is especially true when they feel cornered with no escape route.
But fear isn’t the only thing that can make a sheep become aggressive. If they are poorly socialized or not used to human interaction, they might become skittish and react badly to being handled or cornered. This is more common in older sheep that haven’t been around humans much.
As sweet as the image is, a ewe (female adult) with a lamb might well become standoffish and aggressive when someone gets too close to or comes between her and her young.
She might or might not have horns, but all people are right to fear a mother’s wrath in the animal kingdom where her babies are concerned!
Another cause of aggression in sheep is territoriality or dominance among males and males during the rut in particular.
They will butt heads and ram each other to assert their dominance and defend their harem of females or a perceived intrusion. That intruder might just be you!
I’m Not Worried, it is Just a Sheep
Really? That’s a bold strategy. Consider this. An average adult sheep can weigh anywhere from 150 to 250 pounds, with some big males of certain breeds topping out at 350 pounds.
They can accelerate to 25 mph in seconds. What kind of force do you think that can generate on impact?
Now, consider that force concentrated on the small surface area of their rock-hard heads, or dense horns? Ouch is right.
Broken bones, severe bruising, lacerations, and internal bleeding are all possible outcomes of being rammed or headbutted by an angry sheep. So yeah, you should be worried if you don’t know how to handle an aggressive sheep.
Even if they don’t mean harm, a panicked or angry sheep can easily injure you with their hooves or horns. They might not be likely to kill you outright, but they can certainly cause some serious damage.
Like all animals, you must treat them with a measure of respect
How Do I Know if a Sheep Is Aggressive?
There are certain behaviors you can look out for that will indicate an aggressive sheep. If you see any of the following, be very careful as the sheep in question might attack:
- Staring at you, especially if it is not moving its head back and forth to graze.
- Following you with its eyes or head.
- Making a gargle-like moaning sound.
- Stamping feet or pawing at the ground, especially if followed by backing up.
- Chomping at or nibbling at clothing.
- Headbutting or pushing.
You’ll usually know you have a “problem child” on your hands easily enough since these behaviors are atypical of the rest of your flock. But if you’re not sure, stay on your guard!
The Basics of Dealing with an Aggressive Sheep
Okay, so you have an aggressive sheep you need to deal with. Making your life difficult, holding up work, hurting you and potentially seriously injuring you, your workers, or even your family.
Not good, but it does not have to be the end of the world. Keep all of the following in mind whenever you are around one of these ornery ruminants.
Don’t Taunt the Sheep!
This really, really should not have to be said, but don’t do anything to taunt, provoke or otherwise antagonize the sheep in question. This will only make the situation worse and could get you, or someone else hurt.
Don’t raise your voice, make undue noise, or harass it in any way. This is probably only going to make the problem worse.
Attitudes, like germs, are contagious. If you are being a jerk you can expect your animals to act accordingly. If you are calm and collected, that will likewise start to rub off on the sheep.
Keep Your Head Up
I am not talking metaphorically, either. You want to keep your head upright and stand at your full height around sheep for several reasons.
One, it makes you look bigger and more dominant. That might keep a sheep from making a move on you.
Two, it gives fewer challenge signals to an aggravated sheep, since they drop their head during or prior to a charge.
Three, it keeps your head from being an easy target for their horns or forehead. A good crack from either could give you a concussion! Every advantage helps when dealing with an aggressive sheep.
Be Mindful of Ewes with Lambs
As mentioned above, even the gentlest creature can turn into a ferocious beast when its young are threatened, or when it perceives that its young are threatened.
If a ewe with a lamb thinks you are after her offspring, she will be far more likely to act aggressively toward you than one without. It is best to give them a wide berth whenever possible unless absolutely necessary.
You might be able to freely approach a ewe or a lamb if they trust you, but always pay attention to mom and other sheep nearby for signs of aggression (see above). And make it a point to never get between a ewe and her baby!
Always Keep an Eye on Rams
You want to be mindful of ewes with young, but you better positively respect rams! They are generally larger and stronger than ewes, have bigger horns, thicker heads, more muscle and can be absolutely nasty when they want to be.
If you have any doubts about a ram’s disposition, always assume the worst and keep an eye on him.
Even if you have a ram that you raised yourself and is usually gentle as a lamb he once was, during rutting season (mating season) he will likely be a handful.
Testosterone and other hormones have a way of clouding judgment and leading to bad outcomes, as we all know! A strike from a ram can be way worse than that of a ewe or an adolescent male; take these guys seriously!
Never Turn Your Back on a Sheep Acting Aggressively!
It rarely fails that right when you think an aggressive sheep has calmed down and is no longer a threat, it will charge! And there is nothing more vulnerable than someone with their back turned.
So even if the sheep seems to have settled down or if you have plenty of distance, stay on your guard and never turn your back on it.
Sheep are quieter than you think unless they have a bell on, and getting caught flatfooted with a headbutt to the lower back or pelvis can cripple you- or at least make you feel crippled!
Don’t let your guard down until you have an obstacle between you and the sheep or it has moved off and rejoined the flock peacefully.
Defending Yourself Against a Charge
Despite your efforts to the contrary, you are face to face with a hateful sheep and it is ready to crack you but good. You might be thinking that this ends one way and that’s painful. It does not have to when you know what to do.
The following steps will help you avoid getting rammed and then help you gain physical control over the sheep to protect yourself.
Step 1: Stand Tall and Keep Your Eyes on the Sheep
Just like we talked about above. You want to look big and dominant while also leaving the sheep an “out” since you aren’t dipping your head in mutual aggression.
Stay light on your feet, but you don’t need to drop into a football stance or anything like that. Face the sheep head-on.
Step 2: Watch for the “Reverse”
A sheep that is getting ready to charge will almost invariably stamp its feet, and it will also do something curious: they back up.
This reversing behavior IS NOT a submission or giving ground. They are instead buying room to gallop and get up to full speed, delivering you a nasty blow in the process.
If you see the sheep back up a few paces in a sort of shuffle, be ready to act in a blink.
Step 3: Advance on Sheep
As soon as you notice the sheep backing up, start moving in. Do so calmly and smoothly. Don’t explode into a run or do anything else that will unduly alarm it. You are closing the gap for a couple of reasons.
The first is that taking away the distance between you and the sheep means that it cannot build up speed prior to impact. This lessens a potential blow.
The second reason is that it is unexpected. This might confuse the sheep enough to submit or runoff. If this happens, mission accomplished, you beat him.
However, a sheep that has come this far on the road to violence will likely still charge. Expect it.
Step 4: Wave Arms or a Stick
As you are walking toward the sheep, wave your arms over your head smoothly. Use a stick if you have it. This makes you appear bigger and is, again, unexpected. It might deter the sheep or it might not. If it does, great. If not, be ready to dodge.
Step 5: Watch for the Buck when Sheep Charges
A sheep that charges, especially a male, might rear back on its hind legs to sort of crash its horns down onto the target instead of plowing into it like a battering ram. This packs a wallop, to be sure, but a sheep that does this loses much of its ability to maneuver quickly.
Timing is everything: When and if the sheep rears back, dodge!
Step 6: Sidestep to Dodge Headbutt
Dodge to the left or right and closer to the sheep when it charges. If you mess this up you will probably get cracked. Better luck next time. In any case, keep your footing!
Step 7: Don’t Run!
You hopefully dodged the preceding blow, but now is not the time to hightail it. Sheep can run flat out at 25 miles per hour for quite a distance. Unless you are an Olympic sprinter or safety is very near you won’t get away. Stand your ground.
Step 8: Grapple the Sheep
Time to get control of this critter. But sheep are surprisingly difficult to manhandle. Like all quadrupeds, they are tough to just push over, and you don’t really want to hurt it anyway.
Instead, take hold of the sheep, and dump him on his rump. Don’t grab his horns (if he has them) or his wool. You won’t be able to control him that way.
So lift his head skyward with one hand under the jaw and press his rump down or sweep his back legs with the other.
This will most often result in the sheep’s back legs giving out and it going to a sitting position. From there, you can more easily force it to the ground entirely.
Gotcha! Now, what to do? If you have help nearby you can likely get the sheep under control. If not, start planning your escape once you let him go; he might be ready for round two!
Consider Culling or Removing Highly Aggressive Sheep
It is troubling to think about, but some domestic animals, even after these long years of breeding, can still just turn out plan mean. Maybe it is genetics, maybe it is just bad luck, or maybe the critter is just a bad seed.
In any case, if a sheep is especially prone to aggression it might be best to get rid of him before he hurts someone, including you. Lost man-hours of work due to their hijinks add up, and it is often a matter of time until a serious incident occurs.
If you have an animal like this, consider finding it a new home or, as a last resort, putting it down. Culling is a sad thing, but in some cases, it is the best thing to do.
Don’t Let a Sheep Get the Best of You
Sheep are known for their gentle demeanor, but like all animals, they can be unpredictable and dangerous.
With the right knowledge and preparation, you can defuse an encounter and avoid serious injury.
Knowing how to handle yourself when a sheep charges will help keep you safe and keep your wits so you can deal with it without hurting the animal. Armed with this confidence you can get back to business.
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.