If you’ve ever stopped to watch sheep meandering around a pasture, you’ve probably noticed that the adults and the lambs from time to time will rear back and headbutt each other… Sometimes they might even give the people trying to take care of them a good whack! It sure looks funny, maybe even a little charming, but that’s only because it’s not happening to you!
What’s really interesting is that even sheep without horns will engage in this behavior. That seems downright peculiar! So, why do sheep headbutt?
Sheep headbutt for various reasons, including as an act of play, to defend themselves from predators, and to establish dominance among adults, typically males, in a herd.
Headbutting is normal, instinctive behavior much of the time but that doesn’t mean that it is good behavior in a domestic setting.
If your sheep headbutt every now and then, you probably don’t have anything to worry about but if they are engaging in the behavior regularly, or if you have one or two individual sheep in the flock that do it continually, you’ve got real problems.
Keep reading and I’ll tell you everything you need to know concerning this troubling and sometimes painful behavior.
When Do They Start This Behavior?
Sheep start headbutting in adolescence. Again, this is an instinctive behavior. Once they’re old enough to start walking around, exploring, and interacting on their own, that’s when you’ll usually see it start to occur.
But what matters most is that they don’t, as a rule, grow out of this behavior unless you give them an incentive to stop it. Sheep will use headbutting whenever they think it’s necessary all the way into and through their adult lives.
Will a Sheep without Horns Still Try to Headbutt?
Yes! Most breeds of domestic sheep are polled or disbudded, meaning they don’t have horns naturally or have had their horns stopped or removed.
Nonetheless, these animals will still instinctively try to headbutt when the mood strikes them, whether or not they are equipped with their usual weapons.
Note that even if you have a mature sheep that loses its horns for whatever reason, this won’t necessarily be enough to dissuade them from headbutting.
Yes, the presence of the horns does give them some protection against impact, but their skulls are extremely thick and hard, and can withstand tremendous forces, horns or no horns.
Why Do Sheep Headbutt Each Other?
Sheep will headbutt other sheep for various reasons and at various stages of life…
As mentioned, sheep will start to do it when they are very young, but this is typically done as a form of play between themselves.
Lambs will often playfully make mock charges, rear, and then clash heads with one another gently, relatively speaking, as I sort of mock fight and bonding activity.
But that is the only time that the behavior is truly innocent. The rest of the time, all adult sheep will headbutt to defend themselves or their young if escape from a perceived threat is impossible.
Ewes that have just given birth are especially prone to headbutting anyone and anything that comes close to their precious, newborn lamb. And yes, this even includes people that they know and trust, and that means you! More on that in one second.
The other common reason why adults will headbutt each other is to establish dominance. This is extremely common if you have multiple rams in a flock.
Males have to figure out who the alpha is, and they do this by fighting each other over and over again until one of them submits or leaves. If the defeated ram cannot leave, though, the victor’s ramming might go on until it is critically injured or even killed!
Why Do Sheep Headbutt People?
Sheep headbutt people if they are afraid of them, feeling territorial, or, in the case of new mothers, instinctively trying to protect their lambs.
It doesn’t mean they have stopped trusting you or have turned on you; it just means that their instincts are urging them to try and protect their lamb. They don’t know any better! As she settles into the postpartum period her behavior toward you will return to normal.
Younger sheep or sheep that you had a close bond with might “gently” headbutt you to show affection and play.
Does it Hurt When Sheep Headbutt You?
As a rule, yes. Sheep tend to be fairly powerful and athletic, and a large adult sheep that headbutts you can inflict significant injuries, even break bones or dislocate limbs!
A little lamb that is playfully head-butting you might not truly hurt or do any more damage than giving you a bruise on your shin, but this won’t last very long!
Is it Okay to Let Sheep Headbutt?
No. While it is a natural, instinctive behavior it is only going to cause problems in a domestic setting. Adult sheep can easily injure people by ramming and headbutting, and they can also hurt or kill each other.
It is especially important that you separate new mothers and lambs from the rest of the flock because other adults might show aggression to the defenseless little baby, easily killing it. Likewise, the mother might lash out in overzealous defense of her young.
It might be cute when they are very small, but it will quickly turn into a drain on your efforts and productivity.
How Can You Tell When a Sheep is Just Playing?
Sheep that are playfully head-butting don’t put a whole lot of effort into it. For instance, they won’t get a big running start or charge prior to ramming, and typically only toss back their heads or give a half-hearted rear before striking.
Like when most mammals are playing, the playing typically ends when one partner or the other has had enough.
What Should You Do with a Sheep that is Being too Aggressive?
Any sheep that is being too aggressive and headbutting or ramming frequently should be broken of the habit.
Discouragement on your part might be enough, and you should never hesitate to separate such an animal from the flock. This alone, sometimes, is enough to get the message across that such behavior won’t be tolerated.
If you have more than one ram in a flock, consider selling or culling surplus males to cut down on that instinct for domination that is otherwise extremely difficult to break.
Neutering males before they reach sexual maturity goes a long way to reducing headbutting behavior later on in life, but will not fully eliminate it.
If any of your sheep have horns, consider putting guards or pool noodles over them to reduce the danger to people and other members of the flock until such time as you can deal with them in a more permanent fashion.
Lastly, don’t turn your back on any adult sheep that has shown any aggression or anxiety whatsoever; getting struck from behind when unawares can easily cause major injury!
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.
Find out more about the team here.