Herding Sheep On Foot: Guidance For The First Time Flock Owner

Ewes grazing on pasture

There are many times in the life of a sheep owner when you would need to move your flock, but how to do it?

Herding sheep on foot involves moving the sheep as a group to or from an area by stepping into their flight zone which causes them to move away from you.

A big change in the weather coming so the sheep need to be in a different paddock? Maybe it’s time to deworm the flock but they are not in the barn, now what?

These are just two of many reasons why you would need to move your flock to a different area by herding them while you are on foot.

Easy Sheep Breeds To Raise gives you some of my suggestions for beginner friendly sheep.

drone picture of flock of sheep The Sheep Game
Flock of sheep in Scotland, as seen from a drone. Image from The Sheep Game (YouTube)

Herding on foot is doable and works better with more than one person.

You’ll get beginner level tips on herding your sheep and insight into why the sheep move the way they choose to and what you should do about it.

How Much Does It Cost To Feed Sheep check it out if you are looking for details and guidance on figuring up a budget for your flock.

On foot sheep herding requires practice

This video shows a variety of things that we have been up to for the past few days, but also shows us moving a group of sheep out to a specific pasture. This involves going down the gravel, they don’t like gravel, and through a gate they do not normally use.

Sheep herding is moving a flock of sheep from one place to another.

This could need to happen for multiple reasons and all sheep owners will deal with herding eventually.

The more you practice the better you will get at moving your sheep and anticipating their likely moves.

That’s the good news. The not so good news is that moving your sheep for whatever reason will require practice and patience.

Your ability to read the sheep will greatly improve over time, but the first few attempts will be awkward.

You do not need to have a sheepdog to move sheep

When looking for information about herding and only seeing people with dogs, it sure seems you need one.

Anytime I have looked online for sheep herding I always get huge flocks and the vast majority of the legwork is being done with dogs.

That’s amazing teamwork and training, but not where most new sheep owners are at.

I have to admit that I just got a border collie pup last year with the plans to train her to help us with the flock.

She’s just now getting to training age, so for a while yet we’re still on foot herding. Just like we have for the past 20+ years.

Until you get into some serious sheep numbers or really rough terrain, you’ll do fine on foot. You just need the practice.

Herd sheep to quietly move them

Before you got your sheep you were thinking of all the time your sheep would be spending peacefully grazing or chewing their cud.

Then you get your flock and realize there are a few times you need to get a hold of those gals and they might cooperate, they might not.

This is the point of herding sheep-sometimes sheep are not wanting to go where you need them to be, like they want to keep eating and you need them in the barn for deworming.

Other times they just don’t realize yet what it is that you want them to do, like go through the gate you just opened.

They will happily do it once they see the opening. Unless you want to wait a while until they figure it out for themselves, you need to give them some direction in the form of herding.

For more on moving sheep read Temple Grandin’s Behavioral Principles of Livestock Handling. It’s well worth your time!

Remove obstacles from the sheep path

There are certain things that sheep do not like to go past or have in front of them if you want the herding to go smoothly. Just about anything can be worked around.

However, the more the sheep worry about something in the way of where you want them to go the more work/pressure you are going to have to use to encourage them to get a move on.

Me, showing you where our sheep got out and how we go about fixing it.

I realize somethings can not be moved or altered, but if you can try to avoid the following:

  • going past other animals
  • dark entrances to buildings
  • an object in the path
  • something dangling or moving

Going past other animals will be difficult

This can be two separate things, splitting the flock of sheep or in the case of multi species grazing, moving the sheep past cattle, horses, etc. that are in the same paddock/pasture area.

Splitting off a few sheep from the flock is hard and is hardwired in the sheep to scare them. A flock animal being by itself equals higher risk of death from predators.

Even if you are trying to help the sheep, you are working against instinctive behavior.

Do yourself a favor and move the whole group to a pen, then sort off the few you need.

Sheep like well lit entryways

Sheep don’t like to go into a dark space, they like to go into well lit places.

Even if the sheep are very familiar with the barn entrance, you wanting them to go into the barn is different (to the sheep) than the sheep wanting to go into the barn.

The good news here is you can fix this one pretty easily.

Do one of two things to make the entryway look more acceptable to the sheep:

1. improve the lighting at the entrance way, (temporarily or permanently installed lighting) or

2. put the first pen in the well lit area outside of the barn entrance, then have that pen open to the barn side and run them into the working pen. This way they can’t balk at the dark and run back to wherever they came from.

Work with the sheep in mild temps

The best time to work with the sheep is when they are comfortable. If it is going to be smoking hot today, consider bringing them in a few days from now.

If it’s going to be hot for a while, bring them in when it is cooler, like first thing in the morning. Do not work with them in the heat, you are doubling their stress.

Consider the time of year before herding sheep

Another thing to consider is the time of year, mostly related to lambing.

Ewes with lambs do not move well. Even if the ewe wants to move the lambs will “get lost” and cause all kinds of delays for you.

Young lambs are the worst to herd! The babies get confused so easily and stop moving then the ewe has to come back and find her babies that are “lost”.

Unless you have tons of time and a double dose of patience, herding new moms and babies is going to be very frustrating. Just don’t do it.

Never force ewes with new lambs into a tight area!

A supremely bad idea is to herd the flock of moms and young lambs and then put them in a tight area. Do Not Do This!

The ewes will be avoiding you and step on lambs, hurting them at the least but likely to be breaking legs by trampling.

Some sheep flock better than others

The type of sheep also matters in regards to herding. Some sheep are naturally “light” meaning they move very easily, sometimes too easily!

Other sheep are more “heavy” meaning they are slow to react and move. This depends upon breed and the situation.

Certain breeds of sheep are more reactive, like Cheviots.

Some breeds tend to scatter when feeling pressure, while some flock up, like the popular ranges sheep breeds (for example Merino or Rambouillet).

The situation varies depending upon where the sheep are going, do they view the move as positive or not, and sometimes the weather.

While hot will make them lethargic, a cool crisp day when you just feel good, so do they! When they scamper around bucking and kicking, you know they feel good and will be feisty!

Sheep Breeds Best Suited For Arid Climates is a New Mexico State University article that gives great breed descriptions, including the flocking instinct of each specific breed.

Herding sheep on foot is doable

1. Prepare the area ahead of time

Have everything out of the way that is going to cause you and the sheep delays.

Can they walk around the car in the driveway? Yes. Will it cause another delay while they think about it? Also, yes.

Close off all other options but the way you want them to go.

If there is an opening to choose the direction, you can bet at least a few will go the way you do not want them to go.

Make the place you want them to go the easy and obvious choice for the flock.

2. Make the opening easy for the sheep to see

This is especially important if the sheep normally don’t go through the gate opening you have chosen for today’s herding.

Open the gate wide, not just partially.

I know they can fit through a partially open gate, but you will have to stand there and wait until they figure that out as well. Make it obvious.

3. Get into the correct position by the sheep

You should be standing so that the sheep are between you and the way you want them to go.

Face the sheep and you should see the open gate (or wherever they are going) over their backs.

Are you lined up-you then sheep then gate? If not move until you get this right.

4. Slowly walk towards the sheep

What you are looking for is the sheep to change what they are doing. If they are eating you want them to look at you and walk away.

The movement of the sheep means you are in their flight zone. This is the space where you are close enough that they want to move away from you.

Using the sheep’s flight zone to move them

If you are coming towards the sheep’s head, she will go back the way she came.

If you are coming toward her shoulder clear back to the tail, she will walk forward.

The space between you and the sheep and the area of the sheep’s body you are approaching will determine her reaction.

Flight zone varies with for all sheep. You’ll have to approach slowly and notice when you get a reaction. That space is the edge of their flight zone.

Think of it as a target with concentric circles around the middle.

All around that ewe is her flight zone, touch the circle and she moves. Stay back from the circle and she doesn’t react.

The sheep should be walking, not running!

Notice I said walk away from you, not run! If the sheep are running you came in too close, too fast. Slow down and give them time.

5. Walk a zig zag pattern on the edge of the flight zone

Once the sheep are walking away, remember walking not running, you should make a wide zig zag pattern swooping back and forth behind the sheep to encourage them to move in your chosen direction.

How fast and how much walking? That depends and only experience will tell you. Just get out there and watch the sheep then adjust.

Always keep the sheep between you and the way you want them to go and stay close enough to them that they are moving.

If they are worried you are too close. Keep after it, you’ll get the hang of herding sheep in no time.

Herding easier is easier with help

More people equals easier sheep herding

Have help! This is huge.

So many times I have been trying to get the sheep to do something, like move to a new paddock they don’t realize we just opened, and am frustrated.

It’s just not working.

Then my husband gets done with setting up fence and comes to help. Now it goes tons faster.

A second person makes a job go exponentially faster if the sheep are uncooperative.

Moving sheep out of a high value area will be difficult

Moving them out of an area they see as high value will be very difficult.

For example, if the sheep get into a hay field that they are not supposed to have access to and they are chomping away, you will have a very hard time getting them out.

If possible, let them eat for a few minutes to get the edge off their hunger and excitement, then try to move them.

It still won’t be easy, but it will go a bit better.

Practice reading your sheep

Practice will make you better, much better, at reading your sheep!

The part no one likes to hear is that this involves messing up and being frustrated until you figure it out, but that is how we all learn.

Experience is the great teacher, there is no substitute. Get out there and learn!

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