Do Sheep Recognize Their Owners?

A sheep is able to pick her lambs out of the mob (big group of sheep) and seems able to recognize other sheep that she is familiar with, but does that ewe have the same ability to recognize people?

Can sheep distinguish their owners or caretakers from other people or is one person as good as the next as far as the flock is concerned?

white faced ewe looking at the camera

Sheep recognize the person who takes care of them

Sheep seem to be able to recognize the person who takes care of them, which may or may not be their owner.

For instance, on our farm my husband handles the majority of the work with the barn sheep for things like chores, this means the sheep spend significantly more time per day with him than they spend with me.

Whereas, the sheep that are outside see me just as much as they see him, since both of us handle the outside sheep feeding. To these gals, either one of us is their care taker.

Is Keeping Sheep Easy? and Do Sheep Need A Shepherd? are my articles about the daily life of a shepherd, if you would like to learn more about what the people part of sheep farming is all about.

I tend to be involved with the barn sheep at the times when extra help is needed, so the sheep see me everyday, but I’m not in with them in the pen daily, that is just occasional.

They know this and treat me differently when I go in the pen than when Jason is in the pen himself.

Even if he is in the pen with me, the sheep can still tell that things are different (since he is not by himself this time) and they act differently towards him, just because I am there, too.

I have to admit, if I was the person who normally fed the sheep, then how they react to me would be different, they would be more at ease with me. But I’m not their normal person and they know it.

A very interesting thing that we have noticed is that the sheep seem to be really worried about kids, specifically little kids, almost like the kids are not recognized as people!

We occasionally have the grandkids up in the barn with us and the sheep not happy about that. It’s not what you would expect, since kids are smaller, but they are louder.

My best guess is that it’s more of an unpredictability issue than anything else. Kids, even fairly calm kids, tend to be more unpredictable and less calm than adults. Apparently the sheep have noticed that, too!

Jason, author's husband, holding fall born lamb in barn
Jason, holding a fall born lamb. These lambs and their moms are inside to keep them out of the fall and winter weather that isn’t newborn friendly.

Sheep know different people on same farm

Our sheep can easily tell the difference between my husband and I when we are approaching the barn, even though the sheep see both of us everyday.

When I walk into a group of sheep they can tell that I am not him. How do I know? They act differently towards me than him.

When I am around the flock, the sheep are more alert, simply because I am not their normal person. I would not say that they are scared of me, they are just not as comfortable with me as they are with him.

Sheep know differences in dark and with winter clothes on

The funny thing here is that the sheep seem to be able to tell who is who regardless of it being dark, us wearing different clothes depending upon the season or the weather, like when it is windy.

In the winter, we end up with multiple layers, which distort the person underneath, yet they can still tell.

I’m not sure if what they are noticing is movements, since there is not always talking to tell the differences in voices.

Sheep like what they associate the person with

It is sort of misleading to say that the sheep like the person that spends the most time with them, that is not exactly the case.

They are more comfortable with the person they spend more time with but what they really like is what the person usually brings them.

This could be food or an opportunity, something like opening the gate for new grass. Of course this depends upon the sheep having enough repetitions of the event so they understand what’s going on.

For example, if you normally feed sheep grain that you carry in a bucket, the sheep will learn that buckets equal grain and be excited to see the person with the bucket.

They will be more excited to see a person they are familiar with, but what they really like is that they know a snack is in the bucket so the person is in their pen for a reason the sheep like.

The opposite is also true, when you go off of routine and do something like make the pen smaller so you can catch the sheep more easily, the sheep know that something is up and it makes them nervous.

Even if it is their favorite or most trusted person, when that person goes off of what the sheep consider to be normal, they are wary.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the sheep are being hurt, they aren’t, they are just nervous about being caught. This wariness is hardwired in to prey animals and seems especially prevalent in sheep.

white faced ewes following author in hopes of getting corn
This is the main flock of ewes following me around in hopes of getting some ear corn. The reason they followed me is that they routinely get a snack in the afternoon, so they were hoping I had moved up corn time. I didn’t, I was just there for some pictures.

Routine matters to sheep

Routine is very important to the flock. To the sheep, things going like they always do is good and anything else is not good.

The interesting part here is if you show up early to feed the sheep for chores, they are a bit suspicious and wondering what is going on, even if you are bringing them something they want.

The same person doing the chores is also an important part of the routine to the flock, since, as mentioned above, they can recognize the differences between people, even people they see everyday.

If you look at the picture above, with the flock following me, they are hoping for a snack of corn, which they get in the late afternoon (still a few hours from picture time).

Why do they care about me? They have learned that when a person comes out into the field, they get something so they trot on over and see what you have.

If I went out there and chased them everyday, they would also learn that routine and they would avoid me. It would be the same sheep, the same field and the same me, but very different results.

It’s not so much that they like or don’t like me (or anyone else), it’s more that they like and are comfortable with the routine that comes along with that person.

Pros and Cons of Raising Sheep gives you a look at the good and not so good parts of having a sheep farm.

Sheep can read your intentions

The sheep can also read your intentions, meaning the same sheep that were almost knocking you down when you had the bucket are running to the far side of the pen when you need to catch one.

I figure this is because when we need to catch a sheep, we act differently than when we are feeding them, but either way, they seem to be able to tell and skitter away when you need to grab them.

This is even true with bottle lambs, which are generally thought of as the ultimate in friendly towards people.

Even for these guys, once they realize you are up to something that is out of the ordinary, they skitter away in hopes of avoiding you.

The reason why this is significant is that bottle lambs did not grow up with a sheep mom, yet they still have normal sheep type reactions to you wanting to catch them.

That means that for sheep the reaction to avoid anything unusual is not taught, since bottle lambs do not grow up with a mom, the natural avoidance of anything new or off of routine is inborn.

Further reading:

If you want to learn more about sheep recognizing people, consider reading Sheep Recognize Familiar and Unfamiliar Faces From A Two Dimensional Image a study done by Knolle, Goncalves and Morton published in Royal Society Publishing.org

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