As one of the oldest domesticated species, sheep have been around for a long time. It’s no secret or a surprise that sheep are prone to wandering. It’s literally talked about in the Bible about how sheep just tend to wander off and get lost. But why do sheep wander off?
In general, sheep wander off in order to escape danger, to inspect interesting things, or stay with their herd. More specifically, sheep wander off because:
- They’re scared of something they sensed.
- An individual wandered off, and the herd followed.
- The flock wandered off, and the individual sheep followed to stay flocked together.
- Fleeing is a proven way to survive predators.
- The lead sheep, guard dog, or shepherd got distracted.
- To get close enough to see something worth inspecting.
- They need more personal space.
- They weren’t walking straight.
Understanding these rationales will help prevent this from happening. Keep reading as we explore deeper into why sheep wander off.
Why Do Sheep Wander Off or Stray from the Flock? 8 Reasons Why
There’s some definite overlap in the various reasons why sheep wander. However, each of these had enough of a point that they’re worth listing separately. Here are the 8 reasons I found in my research as to why sheep wander.
Reason #1: Sheep are scaredy sheep with decent senses.
Sheep are naturally fearful creatures. They have a heightened sense of fear because they are prey to many different animals. Add to that their sense of smell, a weird sense of vision (more on this later in the article), and a whole herd of anxious sheep watching for danger?
Is it any wonder that these fearful creatures are easily panicked and stressed? Nope. And it results in them fleeing as a primary defense mechanism. Fleeing is their greatest defense against predators. This defense strategy is highly dependent on avoidance and quick escapes to avoid being eaten. And sheep are pretty dang good at it.
Some primitive breeds of sheep have stronger protective instincts and naturally evade predators. But most domesticated sheep have lost these abilities and rely heavily on humans for protection and safety. If that fails, running is all they’ve got.
Reason #2: Sheep are followers.
From birth, lambs have been conditioned to follow older members of the flock. This instinct becomes ingrained into them early on and stays with them for their entire lives. Following the sheep in front of them is not a conscious thought process, but rather something that happens on autopilot.
This makes sheep prone to wandering, especially if the lead sheep gets sidetracked. As born followers, they will follow the flock without a second guess. This can lead them into big trouble! The sheep can follow the flock right into danger without any reservations. Because hey – they’re with the flock.
Reason #3: Sheep are social creatures who need their flock.
Sheep are highly social animals. They rely on one another and seek guidance and security from their flock. The need to stay in close company with their flock has its advantages. The social nature of sheep is useful for directing and herding sheep. To retain their sense of belonging and safety, sheep will follow the flock anywhere. This may put the sheep’s safety at risk due to their instinctive wandering.
Instinctually sheep feel more at ease as a group. This social instinct runs so deep that sheep need to maintain visual contact with one another. Without the necessary companionship, sheep are likely to become stressed. A minimum of five sheep are needed to create a sense of safety.
Reason #4: Running is a proven defense mechanism.
Being a social creature is not the only reason sheep prefer to stay close to one another. This social behavior is a defense mechanism. Being close to their flock allows sheep to feel safe from predators. When alone, an emu feels vulnerable and will become stressed.
This desire to stay together also means that if one emu is spooked, it will trigger the whole flock in a domino effect. As one sheep flees the rest of the flock is highly likely to follow suit. Ensuring sheep stay calm is very important to prevent this occurrence.
Reason #5: Sheep need and follow strong leaders.
Similar to small children, sheep require strong guidance and direction. This is the reason they can be herded. Sheep need supervision since, without it, they are lost.
Their strong tendency to follow and inability to protect themselves creates a strong desire for leadership. The shepherd or other herding animals provide the structure and leadership to ensure that the sheep are reassured with safety. Sheep without their shepherd can easily become lost.
Reason #6: A sheep’s vision is weird.
Sheep rely tremendously on their sight. Their eyes are situated to the sides of their head. This gives these creatures excellent peripheral vision, allowing them to see behind themselves without the need to turn their heads. Cool, right?
Unfortunately, this amazing peripheral vision comes with some costs. As a result, sheep cannot see directly in front of their noses. In order to see things directly in front of them, they have to get very close to the object. As they move closer to objects to get a better look, they may wander away.
Another problem that comes with amazing peripheral vision is poor depth perception. This results in sheep having a poor understanding of the terrain they are in. This lack of depth perception also solidifies why sheep require good guidance. This inability to gauge depth makes sheep in mountains or highland areas at a greater risk of falling off of a cliff.
Reason #7: Sheep need personal space.
Just like many of us, sheep want their space. The amount of space a sheep needs to feel safe and comfortable without the urge to flee is referred to as the sheep’s flight zone.
This distance extends to everyone and every animal, including us people. There’s literally a biological reason we get tense when someone invades our personal space – it triggers our flight response.
When sheep feel threatened, they will increase their available space in their flight zone. If they are relaxed, they will maintain a smaller flight zone. That way, if there’s a risk, they can run – and not risk being stampeded by the flock.
If sheep feel significantly threatened, then they will increase their flight zone to the point that they may possibly wander away from their usual surroundings. It is important that your sheep feel comfortable around you to keep them as close as possible.
Reason #8: Sheep literally can’t walk straight.
If you’ve ever seen sheep tracks, you’ll notice they’re never straight. This is because sheep don’t walk in straight lines. As mentioned previously, the unique location of the eyes on the sheep’s head make walking straight difficult.
The windy path sheep walk allows these creatures to observe where they’re going (more or less) and what’s behind them. This back and forth head rotation makes it difficult for sheep to travel in one straight direction.
Due to this inability to walk straight, sheep can easily become disoriented and lost. This is another reason why sheep require the leadership of a shepherd or herding animal.
What Are Sheep Afraid Of?
Contrary to popular belief, sheep are not stupid. In fact, there is a growing amount of research to support that these creatures are quite intelligent. Some can even be trained, much like a dog. Seriously – you could house train a lamb if you wanted to. The misinformed belief that sheep lack intelligence likely stems from misconceptions. The heightened levels of fear sheep feel are usually the cause of their erratic behavior which gets called stupidity.
It is important to note that sheep are highly and naturally fearful. As prey animals, their fear and flee method is their only real survival mechanism. They are animals that love and thrive on routine. So sudden changes can be scary. Sheep have evolved to avoid anything that looks scary, new, or unknown to them as it might be a threat. Essentially, they’re afraid of almost everything.
Sheep are afraid of scary sights
Sheep have a highly developed sense of sight and hearing (more on the hearing in the next section). This is to help identify threats quickly and allow them sufficient time to flee. These developed senses, however, cause sheep to react to sights and sound not directly in their vicinity. It becomes a delicate balance of controlling the sheep without simultaneously scaring them.
Sheep have great peripheral vision, covering about 270°-320°, so they can see potential predators approaching from all directions. If something enters into the sheep’s line of vision too quickly, it will spook them. Doesn’t matter who or what it is – quickly moving things are assumed to be a threat.
So approaching sheep from behind, out of their field of vision, will frighten them as well. It’s best to approach sheep calmly, slowly, and from the front so they have time to process that you are coming.
The lack of depth perception and poor ability to see directly in front of them contribute to many different fears that overwhelm sheep. For instance, sheep are fearful of entering areas where there are shadows or dark areas. It is always good to have a light on when guiding sheep into a dark space. The lack of depth perception also contributes to a fear of water. Plus, swimming in all that wool? That’s legitimately terrifying.
Sheep get spooked by all the noises
Sheep are able to direct their ears in the direction of the sound and pick up noises at great distances. This exceptional hearing causes them to become frightened by loud noises. They are fearful of high-pitched or loud noises. Any loud or sudden movement can scare the sheep into running.
Your sheep will not be motivated by yelling. In fact, yelling or screaming can cause increased levels of stress. Sheep are less frantic when spoken to calmly, slowly, and quietly. Patience is your best friend when dealing with your sheep.
Dogs can cause increased levels of fear leading to stress and death for sheep. They can also stress pregnant ewes to miscarry their lambs. Dogs barking or quick movements can alarm these creatures.
Sheep are also scared of being alone
Though many of us fear being alone, this fear extended deeper for sheep. Due to their already naturally fearful way of being, they seek protection in their flock. A sheep that is isolated from the flock will undergo a significant amount of stress. A lone sheep will feel scared, depressed, and anxious regardless of its external circumstances. In order to reduce the high levels of fear sheep should stay in groups. Sheep will move toward their friend when separated.
Overall sheep can be spooked by anything. They are creatures of routine and prefer to be in a controlled environment. Providing them with the stability they crave will help reduce stress in these creatures.
How to Tell if a Sheep is Stressed?
Keeping sheep in a stress-free state makes moving, handling, and housing them much simpler. Plus, it ultimately leads to happier sheep overall. While it would probably be easier to just assume your sheep are always stressed, it is possible to help your sheep be calm. And it’s also possible to learn how to tell when your sheep are stressed.
Similar to humans, sheep have behavioral markers that can tell you when they are stressed. Fear is a strong component of stress for these animals. Sheep can be prone to stress due to their fearful nature. Taking measures to reduce noise, minimizing change and building trust with your flock can help mitigate their high levels of stress.
When there are constant stimuli this will invoke fear and increase the mental strain. This prolonged intensified fear will later manifest into chronic stress. High levels of stress can be deadly for sheep. Here is a list of 7 signs that a sheep is stressed:
- Sheep that are under stress may have apathetic responses to daily activities. They show low levels of activity or engagement for example not wanting to graze. This type of stress response may be especially common when the creature has behavior restrictions imposed or confinement.
- When in a calm setting, sheep tend to be very docile and non-aggressive creatures. Under chronic stress, however, they display signs of hyperactivity, agitation, and/or aggression. This is usually in a situation where the creature feels threatened for its life.
- Appetite provides a strong indicator of overall health. Healthy sheep love to eat, they spend several hours a day cud-chewing and show normal eating patterns. It is an obvious sign of stress when sheep refuse to eat or have a decrease in their normal intake.
- As we’ve discussed before, sheep prefer to flock together. A sheep that is chronically stressed may deviate from this intrinsic desire such as not following closely or may even be the last one to leave when the gate is open.
- Vocalizing, panting, and/or more movement (especially trying to flee the area) are indicative of stress.
- Similar to humans, sheep can also show emotions. When experiencing stress or isolation, sheep will show signs of depression similar to those displayed by humans. These include but are not limited to; hanging their heads, having outbursts, and avoiding positive actions.
- Sheep spend a great deal of their day lounging and relaxing. A sheep that cannot sleep or relax is showing signs of stress. They may be unable to lie down or constantly wander and appear unable to settle.
Can Sheep Take Care of Themselves?
In general, domesticated sheep need people to care for them and protect them. Could they survive for a while on their own? Sure. But they do much better with caretakers who will shear them, protect them, and make sure they’ve got food.
Final Thoughts on Sheep Wandering
Fear is the strongest motivator for the actions of sheep. As their only means to defend themselves sheep rely strongly on this instinct. Which oftentimes can cause them to wander. As we’ve learned there are many reasons behind them wandering off.
Wandering off is usually the result rather than the original intent of their action. The sophisticated and intricate reasons for sheep wandering reveal more insight into these sometimes misunderstood and mislabeled creatures. Their fears can stem from a number of causes, from almost anyone to anything. It’s important to recognize the signs of stress. Reducing fearful stimuli can also reduce stress in the long term.
Learning from your own experience is important, but learning from others is also smart. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- Cockram, M. S. “A Review of Behavioural and Physiological Responses of Sheep to Stressors to Identify Potential Behavioural Signs of Distress.” Animal Welfare, vol. 13, no. 3, 2004, pp. 283-291.
- Dwyer, C. M. “How has the Risk of Predation Shaped the Behavioural Responses of Sheep to Fear and Distress?” Animal Welfare, vol. 13, no. 3, 2004, pp. 269-281