I’m sure you’ve seen it, sheep in a face off charge towards each other and wham, headbutt! You can even hear the smack when they connect!
What are those crazy sheep doing headbutting each other and why do they sometimes headbutt a lot and other times hardly at all?
Sheep headbutt to show or establish dominance amongst themselves and with people. Usually rams headbutt, however, ewes can and do headbutt, as well. Headbutting is more common in rams that are not familiar with each other and during high competition times like breeding season.
If you are a beginner and would like to learn more about sheep read 8 Things You Should Not Do Around Sheep.
Headbutting is a dominance behavior in sheep
Sheep headbutt to establish dominance. This could be with other sheep or with people. Headbutting usually happens when a pair of rams both think they should be the one in charge of the pasture, so a challenge starts.
Normally, the headbutting is not a big deal. Yes, the rams will whack each other, but this is normal. Usually, they crack together a few times and one of them has had enough.
Sheep headbutt in a number of situations, maybe they are feeling frisky and have a little too much energy or maybe one of the rams is feeling like the other ram is on his turf.
Headbutting seems to happen more before and during the breeding season and less in the hot weather or when all of the ewes are bred.
Are Sheep Easy Keepers? goes over the good and the bad of raising sheep.
Rams can headbutt you, as well
Most of the headbutting you’ll see is sheep on sheep, usually ram on ram, but not always. Since headbutting is the sheep way to say “I’m in charge here”, it’s not limited to sheep vs sheep. Sometimes, it’s sheep vs you.
If you are being targeted for headbutting, it’s a ram who thinks you are on his turf and he is going to show you that he’s in charge.
This is super common with rams that are raised in close contact with people from a young age, especially bottle lamb rams. The more contact you have with a ram when it is a lamb, the more likely it is to headbutt you as an adult.
Many people new to raising sheep are shocked when their best buddy lamb starts being way to pushy and headbutting them. Experienced shepherds know what happened and are not surprised!
Ewes will headbutt rams and each other
Ewes will headbutt rams and other ewes when they feel it is necessary. Admittedly, ewe headbutting is much less frequent than ram headbutting, but it is something that happens often enough it’s not abnormal.
You may also see ewes headbutt lambs. When a ewe headbutts a lamb she is trying to push it away from her, usually because the lamb is trying to nurse and she doesn’t want it to.
The lamb may be an opportunist that has a mom but is just looking for an easy snack. Or it may be a lamb that she doesn’t want with her because she does not think it’s her baby. Either way, this lamb will get headbutted by the ewe.
Headbutting can be dangerous for you
We have had rams that headbutt, actually we have a young one right now that is known to headbutt. He seems to be worse in the winter, when the sheep are bored.
Headbutting rams that are aiming for you are a problem. You will get hurt. And, at least in my experience, once a ram starts headbutting people, he does not stop.
You can try putting him with a different group of sheep or in a different pen, but once he feels comfortable again, the headbutting will be back
Once a ram starts headbutting you, there is no way that I know of to stop the behavior. Manage your flock so that you don’t have to be in with him, try a ram shield or sell him to slaughter.
Headbutting rams can be fitted with a ram shield
You can buy a ram shield, this is a leather vison blocker that goes on the ram’s head so he can’t see you. The shield blocks forward vision, but side vison is unaffected.
The thinking behind the shield is simple, if he can’t see you how can he headbutt you? The shield is strapped on, similar to a halter.
We have used one of these ram shields in the past and it does work but we don’t use them now.
We are concerned that the ram will get his head caught in the fence by the shield straps (due to our fencing, not a problem with the shield) and that’s not worth the risk to us.
To be clear, choosing to not use the shield means we are risking headbutting instead!
If you want a closer look at the ram shields to see if they might work for you, click Ram Shields at Premier 1.
Headbutting can be dangerous for sheep
Normally you can’t even tell who was involved once they get their pecking order sorted out. But, sometimes things get out of hand with headbutting rams.
Rams can hurt one another by headbutting. Think about it, that’s 200+ pounds per ram running at each other and smacking heads!
We have had bleeding heads, which always looks terrible! Heads tend to bleed a lot for the size of the wound. Plus, since the sheep are fighting, their blood is really pumping so they bleed more.
Usually bleeding heads from headbutting comes from knocking off a scur (a small, weakly attached horn) but sometimes it’s just a break in the skin from impact. Either way, headbutting can cause bleeding.
Occasionally, a ram looks a bit dazed after a few whaps. If this is the case, you’ll need to separate out those rams since they obviously can not behave themselves when they are together.
Putting new rams together will cause headbutting
When you put all the rams into one pen or put a new ram with one or more rams he normally does not live with, there will be headbutting.
Be aware of this, especially when you buy in a ram, but keep your old ram. There will be a showdown. If you are not comfortable with this, don’t combine the rams.
Learn more about headbutting in sheep at Sheep 101. This site has all kinds of sheep information. Be sure to click through to Sheep 201, a sister site that is full of interesting topics, as well.
Image credit: picture at beginning of the article showing a black ram with other white rams is from The Sheep Game (YouTube)