When you take a closer look at a sheep, you notice that she really does not have a lot of ability to defend herself. Sheep are fairly small, they don’t have sharp teeth or claws and they are not well camouflaged.
So what exactly do sheep have to defend themselves against predation?
Sheep group together and count on the confusion of the flock as their main defense. Sheep also tend to run first and think later, which will hopefully get them out of the range of a predator.
Being in a flock is a confusion based defense
The first defense sheep have is that they live in a flock, this gives them a couple of advantages over predators, mainly confusion and lots of eyes and ears to see the predator coming.
The flock is confusing to the predator that is looking for an easy meal, picking out one or two of the more likely targets out of the group gets harder when you can’t tell one sheep from the next.
If all of the sheep look the same, how do you keep track of the one you are after?
Predators learn to use their energy wisely. They want to go after the easy or most likely result, not just zoom in willy-nilly and scatter the sheep with no results for dinner.
That is just a waste of energy that will not feed them or their young.
Check out a flock of sheep grazing then watch them notice something that scares them, they immediately bunch together and have eyes and ears on full alert.
Maybe it’s a herding dog coming out to gather the flock or it could be an unfamiliar person walking in the field or a piece of plastic fluttering around in the wind.
Notice that the sheep went from calm to high alert and gathered up in seconds.
Also notice that the sheep you could easily pick out individually when they were grazing is mixed into the group and now you have no idea which one that is.
This is the point of the flock, confusion of the predator is key.
Sheep can “fake it”
Sheep can fake the ability to fit in with the rest of the flock.
Eventually, whatever problem the sheep has will be beyond her ability to fake being normal, but until then, she’ll keep acting like everyone else to the best of her abilities.
For a shepherd, this is one of the things he has to learn to see past in order to catch any problems early so that treatment is more effective and management changes can be made when needed.
In the field, faking it keeps the sheep all looking the same which keeps the predators confused, or at least, does not make their job any easier than it needs to be!
Sheep tend to run first, think later
Many herd animals tend to run or react first and think later, this is definitely true for sheep.
While most of the time there is no reason to run after all, maybe it was just a piece of plastic blowing around that scared them.
But what if that flicker they saw out of the corner or their eye was a coyote and not plastic?
The sheep that did not zoom out of there is likely to be lunch. This is why the reaction of sheep to nearly anything new is to over react to the new situation until they know, for sure, that it is safe.
This run first, think later defense is built in to the sheep and in past generations has saved many sheep from predation.
Sheep 101 has a quick to read section on how sheep evade predators called Flee, Not Fight.
In close quarters, a ewe may headbutt
In close quarters, a ewe may decide to headbutt an intruder. Of course, this may or may not work, depending upon the size of the intruder and the situation of the ewe.
Sheep always prefer to run since that is their main defense, but if they feel they can not run, headbutting is one of the few options she has left.
Not all ewes will decide to take on the aggressor, but some will especially if they have a new lamb and are in a place where escape is unlikely, like in a corner of a fence.
Other sheep related articles of mine that you may enjoy: