You’ve surely heard some version of the phrase “sheep are always looking for a reason to die”, usually from folks who tried to raise a small flock and ended up disappointed.
But you’ve also seen people with large flocks of sheep that seem to be doing fine, so what’s the truth? Do sheep really die easily or is there something else going on here?
Sheep do necessarily die easily, however they are more susceptible to stress than most other livestock. As stress increases it drags down the sheep’s health, which lowers the likelihood of recovery.
Acute stress, like a dog attack, can kill sheep and is likely to have longer term negative consequences for the ones that survive.
Sheep have a reputation that they die easily
Sheep have a poor reputation in that they seem to die easily, at least compared to other livestock that folks may be more familiar with, like cattle.
The catch here is that sheep do not actually die easily, what really happens is that they are very sensitive to stress and require close observation by the shepherd to see problems early on.
Many people who are new to sheep expect the sheep to be able to rebound from a health challenge like cattle would, but they don’t.
Pros And Cons Of Raising Sheep goes over the good news and the not so good news of raising sheep, with most of the cons being related to problems from stress.
Sheep tend to hide problems
Sheep tend to hide problems.
When you think about this it makes sense, sticking out from the flock makes you a target for predators, so hiding a small problem for as long as the sheep can helps it to stay alive.
The problem now is that the sheep does not have to take care of problems on her own, a person can help her, but only if the problem is noticed while small and easier to fix.
Sheep are hardwired to blend, in her mind blending in with her fellow sheep is literally do or die. This is why she’s so good at faking!
This is also why you have to observe the flock daily to understand their normal behavior so that you can then see their abnormal behavior and step in to help.
This takes experience on the part of the shepherd and time to learn. Unfortunately, until this is learned the flock will continue to frustrate you.
Lambs are small
Lambs are especially vulnerable, mainly because they are smaller bodied with almost no defense against predation.
Their size makes them an easy target for all predators in the area. Lambs are easy to catch and carry off with little to no interference on the part of the ewe, she is scared, as well!
The other challenge with lamb size is that they have a fairly large surface area compared to their weight, this means they can chill down quickly, like in a cold rain, and have trouble warming back up.
Lambs can easily die as a result of lowered body temperature (hypothermia), even though this type of weather generally doesn’t harm the adult sheep.
Sheep are susceptible to parasites
Another problem with sheep that makes them easy to die, or at least seems to be so, is that they are very susceptible to parasites. This is really a management problem, not a sheep die easily problem.
The catch with parasites is that they are internal, so you can’t see the damage they are causing until it gets to be more than the sheep can make up for.
This means that she has been dealing with parasites for a while and they are finally too much for her.
Her body has been overly stressed by the parasites for a while, you just don’t see the results until she can no longer keep up with her nutritional needs as well as those of the parasites.
Once a sheep gets to the point that you can see she is losing weight and doing poorly in general, she has had a higher parasite load than she can handle for a noticeable amount of time.
But if you didn’t notice, then this is one of those things that seems to come out of no where, but was really fairly obvious, once you look.
Why Do Farmers Deworm Sheep? is an article I wrote to give you the scoop on one way farmers and ranchers keep parasites from harming sheep.
Sheep are very susceptible to stress
Sheep are very easily stressed. The source of stress could be external, like begin chased by neighborhood dogs, or internal, like inadequate nutrition or high parasite loads.
No matter the source, the stress keeps adding to the overall stress load of the sheep and will eventually cause her health problems, just like happens in us!
Acute stress can also kill sheep
Acute stress from predation, including being harassed or “worried” by dogs can kill sheep. Sheep Die In “worst attack in memory” at BBC.com shows the dead sheep that were killed by dogs.
The crazy part here is that it appears that the dogs did not even touch the sheep, the dogs basically stressed the sheep to death.
Ignored sheep end up with problems
Another idea that people who do not spend much time with sheep or who are new to sheep seem to have is that sheep just do their thing and you (the owner) ignore them most of the year.
This is not the case! You need to spend time with your sheep.
Sheep are not hard animals to take care of, but they do require some work and spending some time with them to see how they are handling the current situation, whatever that situation is.
For example, if you get behind on parasite control and are on the “ignore the flock” plan, the next time you drop back in to see your sheep you will not like what you find, the ewes will be in poor shape.
What has happened is that you have not matched the management needs of your sheep with the current situation that you are raising the sheep in.
Something is off and it is now so far off that there are big problems. The something that is off, was off when the problem was small, as well. No one bothered to look into it, so now the problem is a big one.
There are some sheep that appear to be being ignored, but that is not the case once you are aware of what is going on in the bigger picture with flock management.
For instance, Greg Judy has quite a few sheep that get little daily work done with them and it seems to be working out wonderfully well. But dig deeper, what all are you really seeing?
You see sheep that are well suited to the situation, plenty of forage available for the stock year round, no parasite pressure and constant monitoring by guard dogs, for predation control.
So, actually there is quite a bit going on here, it’s just not Greg Judy himself spending hours with the flock each day.
He has matched the sheep to the situation then given them the support they need (like the guardian dogs and parasite free grazing) to live well.
Sudden Death In Growing Lambs at Molecarevetservices.com goes over some of the reasons a growing lamb may die, many of which are related to feeding changes.