One of the first farmed animals, reared for thousands of years for meat and milk.
There are over 1 billion sheep worldwide. The greatest numbers are farmed in Asia and Africa. Sheep are kept for meat (lamb and mutton) and for milk.
Sheep are prey animals, largely defenseless against predators and naturally nervous and easily frightened. They flock together for safety.
Sheep have a ‘flight zone’ – the distance they keep from a potential threat such as a person or sheepdog - which varies depending how wild the sheep are.
Lambs are very independent at birth and form strong bonds with their mothers, recognising each other by their bleats.
Sheep are surprisingly intelligent. They are able to recognise and remember 50 sheep faces and those of familiar humans.
Where do sheep come from?
Sheep originate from wild sheep. They were one of the first domesticated animals, farmed since about 9,000 BC. Over the years of domestication, sheep have been bred to have more wool and developed black, white and spotted varieties.
Sheep farming today
Most sheep are farmed outdoors in extensive systems, with less than 1% kept in intensive systems (although this is still several million animals). Some sheep may be housed over winter but otherwise housing is generally reserved for lambing, fattening of some lambs and for milking sheep.
Although the vast majority of sheep are not intensively farmed, there are still significant concerns for sheep and lamb welfare.
An exhausted sheep being transported.
Sheep being loaded onto a ship for transportation, Australia. Australia exports millions of sheep every year.
The main welfare issues affecting sheep are from mutilations, lameness, transport and illness caused by disease. The health problems of sheep are largely treatable or avoidable with good grazing, breeding and stockmanship.
Lambs are routinely subjected to painful mutilations. The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) states that castration and tail docking of lambs “should not be undertaken without strong justification".
Many male lambs are castrated to prevent breeding, aid fattening and reduce aggression. Lambs are usually castrated by applying a tight ring, clamp or surgery. This is normally done without anaesthetic.
It is common for lambs to have their tails docked. This is partly to prevent the accumulation of faeces around the tail and reduce lesions and infections from flies. However, evidence shows that tail-docking is not necessary to maintain the health and welfare of lambs. Tail-docking is carried out with a knife, hot iron or tight ring around the tail.
Mulesing is the surgical removal of sections of skin from around the tail of a sheep, usually with no anaesthetic. Mulesing is often performed on Merino wool-producing sheep in Australia to reduce the incidence of flystrike – lesions and infections caused by blowflies. Anaesthetics and anti-inflammatories would significantly reduce pain while closer inspections of flocks, use of chemicals and breeding could reduce the use of mulesing altogether. Through voluntary industry agreements, mulesing has been largely phased out in New Zealand and progress is also being made towards phasing out the practice in Australia.
Ewes and lambing
Many ewes die during winter and spring because of poor body reserves to cope with winter and inadequate grazing. Many lambs are aborted or stillborn or die through disease, exposure and starvation. Multiple births are common in many modern sheep breeds and often result in problems for the ewe during delivery and produce more vulnerable lambs. In the UK, as many as 15% of lambs do not survive.
Live sheep and lambs are frequently transported on long journeys around the world. For example, each year, around 1.5 million sheep and lambs as young as four weeks old, are sent to Italy for slaughter from Hungary, Romania, Poland and Spain. On EU journeys legislation is frequently ignored with animals not given the rest, food and water required. Sheep are regularly transported in overcrowded trucks with insufficient headroom. In hot weather overcrowding can contribute to poor ventilation and sheep are often unable to access or use drinking devices.