Can You Leave Sheep Outside For The Winter?

It’s common to see sheep outside for the nicer parts of the year when the grass is growing and the weather is nice, but what about the times of the year when the weather is not so nice, like when it’s cold?

Can sheep be outside in the winter or do they need to be kept in a barn?

sheep eating hay in the snow

Many sheep are capable of being kept outside for the winter, as long as the sheep are acclimated to the area’s weather, have plenty of high quality forage or hay to eat and have a sheltered area to go to when it’s windy.

Sheep can handle cold weather

Sheep can live in cold weather and actually seem to do quite well in the snow, as long as the sheep are used to the weather in the area where they are raised.

With their wool coats, sheep are well insulated against the cold and as long as they are in good body condition can do well outside for the winter in a sheltered area.

Sheep should be given some kind of shelter even if it is just a tree line or wind block.


Our main flock of ewes is outside year round on a fairly large pasture where they can move to one of a few sheltered locations depending upon the direction of the wind.

Of course, this requires feeding the sheep outside and dealing with frozen water, but those are the concerns of the sheep farmer, not the sheep themselves.

What Temperature Is Too Cold For Sheep? is my article going over a research study that found that sheep when given the choice prefer to be outside, even in the cold weather.

This is our main flock of ewes coming to hay. These sheep stay outside for the winter in an area with multiple shelter options for them to choose from, depending upon which way the wind is coming from.

Snow is not the main problem for sheep

On the days when it snows, the sheep are not really bothered too much by the snow itself.

If you look at a flock of sheep in the snow, you’ll see the sheep are well insulated from the cold by the snow sitting on their backs, not melting into the wool.

This means that the cold is not really affecting the sheep, other than adding a bit of weight. If the snow prevents movement to food or shelter, that is a different story, now the snow is the problem.

For us, snow doesn’t normally restrict the flock’s movement. It’s more that the snow can be deep enough to prevent them from eating leftover hay, in which case we would just feed more hay.

If the snow on the sheep was melting, the sheep would be losing body heat. Instead, the snow just sits there and will either be shaken off or melt off when the weather warms up.

Wind and cold rains are harder on sheep

The main problem sheep face with cold weather is wind and rain, which is kind of crazy since if it’s raining it’s actually warmer than if it’s snowing!

Cold rains make maintaining body heat harder, add to that some wind and you have a fairly stressful situation for the flock. This is much more of a problem for sheep than snow.

If you get a lot of cold rains and windy days over the winter rather than snow, it may be wise to have shelter for the sheep to go into. Constantly being out in this weather will be pretty stressful for them.

The flock can handle the occasional not so great day, but if they are getting hammered all the time, that’s too much and will result in health consequences if they are not moved to a more sheltered area.

bare spots in snow where sheep slept for the night
These are two oval shaped bare spots on the pasture where the sheep were laying for the night when we got a bit of snow.

Most sheep do not need a barn

Most sheep do not need a barn for the winter, but they do need some sort of shelter and feed, both of which are usually handled by having the flock in a barn or shed.

Sheep that are in good body condition and have a full wool coat do not need to be in a barn unless the barn is required to provide shelter that the pasture does not.

Of course, this assumes the that the sheep are acclimated to the area, meaning they have been outside during the cooling weather of the fall that has naturally gotten them used to winter.

If so, the flock should be able to handle the winter of most areas as well as the larger wildlife, like deer, handle it.

Pros and Cons of Raising Sheep is an article I wrote to give you a list of some of the advantages and disadvantage that come with being a sheep farmer.

new lamb and his mom in barn
This is a fall born lamb who is inside with mom (and other moms and lambs) for the winter. Lambs like this are too small to be kept outside over winter in our climate so any late lambers are brought into the barn for shelter and to provide the better feed needed for nursing ewes.

Some sheep need a barn for the winter

There are a few classes or groups of sheep that need a barn, or at the very least some substantial shelter for the winter do to their individual situations like age or sheep that have been recently shorn.

Some of the groups of sheep that do need to be in a barn for the winter are:

  • sheep that are recently shorn
  • newborn lambs
  • younger lambs
  • older or sick sheep
  • sheep that are not genetically suited for your area

Recently shorn sheep

Sheep that do not have their full wool coat, or close to it in the case of sheep that require twice a year shearing, need to have additional protection from the weather.

Many sheep are genetically suited to being outside for the winter, with access to shelter, but once you remove their wool, now they are not protected from the cold.

These sheep need the barn and probably some extra calories in their diet to make up for the lack of an insulative coat.

Newborn or young lambs

Newborn or young lambs will also need to be in a more sheltered location than is needed for the adult sheep, since lambs are not able to keep body heat like adult sheep.

These guys will also need a bump up in feed to keep up their calorie intake, since they are both growing and using additional energy to keep warm.

Young lambs could be in a situation where they can go in and out of a barn as they choose with their moms, but in most situations a lamb out in the cold is not going to be able to survive.

Older or sick sheep

Any sheep that is already having a health challenge, like a sheep that is having age related problems or a sheep that is just sick, will both have more problems dealing with cold weather and should be in a barn.

These sheep are already having problems keeping up with their maintenance needs and a winter outside will only make this harder on them. Put them inside where they don’t have to work so hard.

Sheep that are not genetically suited for your area

Sheep that are not genetically suited for your area will not be able to handle the cold if the area they came from does not have similar weather.

For instance, if you were to get a tropical breed of sheep and decide to keep them outside over the winter in one of the northern climates, it will not go well.

These sheep will not be able to make the metabolic adjustments required to thrive in your area that a sheep more suited to the area would automatically make.

What’s the problem here? In this example, a tropical breed of sheep has been developed over generations to deal with getting rid of excess heat and dealing with parasites. No heat conservation, at all.

In the northern climates, of course there will be some hot days, but really the bigger issue is dealing with the cold. Your sheep are specialists for a different situation than the situation you are raising them in.

If this is the case, you need to help these sheep along by keeping them inside for the winter and upping their energy intake so they have more calories to burn for heat.

The other option is to sell them and get a different flock of sheep that are better suited to your area, if you want to keep the flock outside all year.

If you are interested in more information including feeding recommendations, consider reading:

Winter management tips for sheep by M. Metzger of Michigan State University Extension

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