There is hardly anything more associated with pastoral life than that of a flock of livestock moving peacefully around a field, bells around their necks tolling gently.
In fact, I would wager that most people cannot even remember a time when they didn’t imagine livestock this way. The same thing goes for sheep.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why this is? Why does any animal need to wear a bell around its neck? And do our sheep really need to wear them?
No, sheep don’t need to wear bells around their necks, but it does help owners keep track of them, and easily locate them in an emergency.
Believe it or not, the practice of placing a bell around the neck of any animal is one that is actually pretty contentious today, though the practice is beyond traditional and dates back many hundreds, even thousands, of years…
There was a lot to consider before you decide to put a bell on your sheep or not, so keep reading and we will tell you what you need to know.
Why Do Sheep Need to Wear Bells?
Bells, simply stated, are an asset control and protection device for any animal on a working farm. They aren’t just for decoration or a fun triviality to pop on an animal’s collar.
Bells serve several important, practical functions for shepherds when it comes to keeping track of their animals and being aware of where they are and what they are doing. We will talk more about those reasons in just a minute.
When Did the Practice of Livestock Bells Start?
We generally have a pretty good idea of when mankind started to implement the use of bells for the tracking of livestock, but the precise origins of the concept are still somewhat murky.
All the way back in the third millennium, BC, little bells made from clay and other earthware have been dug up in East Asia.
Based on other contextual evidence, it is suspected that these were used the same way we use livestock bells today.
Switching gears to European countries, confirmed livestock bells for cows have been found in what is today the UK dating back to between 600 and 800 AD.
It should also be pointed out that even that far back the bells were not just used for control purposes, but they also played a part in ceremonies and other cultural traditions just as they do today.
In various traditions and mythology from bygone eras, bells of all kinds were thought to ward off ghosts, demons, and other evil entities, or even keep bad people at bay (because those phantasmal spirits were thought to reside within them).
With a little luck, bells might have kept sheep from being stolen by envious neighbors or rustlers!
Although precious few people believe that bells are a good defense against evil today, the use of bells in this way still persists as a part of various cultures around the world.
This happens in spite of the fact that the bells themselves are no longer useful practically due to modern containment and control technologies.
Bells Can Help People Find Sheep Quickly When Trouble Strikes
Probably the most immediately apparent and useful feature of a bell for sheep is that it can help the shepherd find them quickly in an emergency.
This is especially important if the sheep are spread out over a large area, or if it is nighttime and visibility is low.
Sheep might get out of their pasture or scatter and become lost for all sorts of reasons, from predators to bad weather.
In any case, the tolling of a livestock bell can be heard reliably from a long way off, and help a shepherd find even a single sheep with ease compared to eyes alone.
Some people think that only a few sheep in a flock can be equipped with bells since they are herd animals, with the reasoning being that because the sheep are supposed to stay together this will be enough to keep tabs on the whole flock.
Nice theory, but this will not help in the case the sheep with the bell is the one that gets lost, or vice versa.
If every sheep is outfitted with its own bell, it is exponentially easier to locate any one of them that might have gone astray.
Similarly, if a shepherd hears a sudden clanging of many bells as opposed to the usual tempo of gently tolling ones, he knows at once that the flock is agitated or on the move quickly, perhaps a sign that a predator is stressing the sheep.
Bells Can Also Help People Stay Safe
It might sound a bit silly to those not in the know, but giving sheep bells can help the people around them stay safe, too.
You might not think so at first blush, but sheep are large and fairly powerfully built. Some, particularly males, can act aggressively and ram, kick, or generally make a nuisance of themselves — potentially injuring people.
It does not take much imagination to see how badly someone might be injured if they were rammed by a male sheep at full speed while their back was turned.
Of course, this isn’t to say that all sheep are violent, only that it is hardly unheard of for them to be dangerous, particularly if they feel threatened or territorial.
The bell can give an early warning in just such a case by alerting the person to the sheep’s approach so they can take evasive action and avoid being hurt. Heads-up if you hear a rapid jingle of bells!
Bells Make it Easy to Keep Track of Sheep
In a less serious but no less important role, bells just help a keeper remain passively aware of their general location as they move around the farm or their pasture.
Surprisingly, sheep don’t make nearly as much noise moving around as you might think, particularly when they aren’t being vocal.
You might look up one moment to see that your flock has disappeared! Where did they go? You’ll need to go look.
Or if your flock has bells on, you need only listen to figure it out. If they are moving at all and within earshot you’ll know.
This can help a farmer or homesteader do more with less effort, always a good proposition!
Don’t Bells Hurt Sheep?
First, it is important to understand that when done properly, bell fitting will not harm the animal in any way.
In fact, it is not all that different from putting a collar on a dog or cat and, if done right, it should not interfere with the sheep’s movement or feeding, or cause any irritation whatsoever.
This requires that you select a collar that fits properly, and that you pick a bell that is lightweight enough that is causes no undue strain on the sheep.
Also, keep in mind that the selection of the bell itself is hugely important.
Even traditionally styled bells can be immensely loud when ringing, upwards of 112 decibels… That is louder than a jackhammer or rock crusher!
There is no doubt such bells will stress and injure a sheep’s hearing. In fact, some studies do show that loud, heavy bells are associated with hearing loss and other physical and mental injuries in sheep.
For this reason, if you are going to put bells on your animals, be sure to get lightweight ones that do not make an excessively loud noise. If possible, find ones with a slightly muted tone as well.
Are There Alternatives to Traditional Bells for Sheep?
Yes. Modern farmers increasingly turn to modern solutions for keeping track of their animals.
One such solution is the use of GPS trackers. These devices can be placed on animals’ collars in a similar way to bells, and provide real-time information on their location via an app or other interface.
Far lighter and less obtrusive than bells, they are immensely helpful when you have a large flock or if your animals are prone to wander off, as it means you can locate them down to the meter.
On the other hand, they require electricity and do not afford nearby people the other advantages of bells, such as passive, real-time awareness of the flock’s location.
So, what is the final verdict then? Should you put bells on your sheep or not?
As with anything else, there is no easy answer and ultimately it is up to you to decide what is best for your flock and your situation.
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.