on sheep behaviour
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We often spend time watching our sheep because they are nearly always within sight of where we are working. These observations were made for our own interest on our small flock of sheep.
When grazing they work slowly forward, often side by side, apparently smelling the grass then cropping suitable material by gripping the grass between their teeth and pad. Grass is cut by rapid forward and upward movements of the head.
They seem to especially like grazing up to the edge of objects. Grass along the edges of walls, around objects or at the base of a fence is always thoroughly grazed. When limited by an electric fence the grass immediately adjacent to the fence and below the bottom wire is always more heavily grazed than other areas. Presumably this is because these areas are less likely to have been soiled or trampled than more open areas.
They always avoid grass that has been soiled by droppings (or urine?) and they do not eat the dark green, vigorously growing grass that has apparently been fertilised by their waste. They normally graze standing up but will, at times, continue to graze while lying down. If they are reaching under a fence they often go down onto their front knees, or even lie on their side to reach fresh grass.
When browsing on hedges, fences, trees or suspended hay-nets they commonly stand up on their back legs in order to reach suitable plant material.
The main food is grass but they will try almost anything else that can reach.
Cupressus leylandii - they are very much attracted to this and will eat it whenever they can. They will even browse the leaves and small branches from hedge trimmings
Hogweed - they readily eat leaves, stems and flowers of these plants.
Dock - large, well-grown plants are readily eaten but small leaves are often ignored.
Bramble - The leaves are eaten.
Dandelion - flowers and leaves eaten
Buttercup - they will occasionally eat these but usually tend to leave them.
Gorse - smaller softer parts eaten
Nettles - usually left uneaten but they will eat them if there is not much else available. Ewes, after weaning the lambs, and on restricted grazing readily ate nettles.
Broom - Will eat the softer parts.
Vegetables - They readily eat mangols. With carrots they are cautious at first but once they get to try them some individuals enthusiastically eat them. (Rocky, our ram gets quite excited when given carrots.)
Hazel - They readily eat hazel leaves.
Apple - When we cut down an old apple tree we put the branches in with the sheep and they immediately began devouring the leaves. They then proceeded to gnaw at the bark and tips of branches until they had stripped all parts they could reach.
Apple fruit - at first they were cautious but once they had tried it most were very keen to eat it.
We feed all of our sheep on ewe nuts all the year round. The main reason for this is to keep the sheep accustomed to coming to us for food. This makes them easy to catch when we need to give them routine medicine or to check their feet etc.
They are very fussy about eating pelleted food that might be contaminated. Sometimes a sheep will step into a food bowl and perhaps leave a trace of dung in it. This often results in them leaving the rest of the food, or any subsequent food put into the dirty bowl.
Chewing the cud
After a period of grazing they usually lie down and chew the cud for a while. They will also chew cud while standing although they seem to prefer to be lying down.
The sheep frequently move from one area to another. Commonly, it seems that one member of the group stops grazing and begins to wander off. This one may or may not be followed by others. A single sheep rarely moves far from the rest but usually, when one begins to move others do as well. If several sheep start walking the rest soon follow. They commonly walk in single file and often have well-developed paths even in a small grazing area.
A normal day consists of periods of grazing alternating with periods of rest or exploration. As day breaks they are usually seen grazing and this lasts for several hours. Later in the morning, especially in good weather, they lie down and rest and can be seen chewing the cud. They tend to spend most time grazing or looking for suitable food.
They will investigate any new objects in their area and soon find any openings into unexplored areas. If a gate is opened they are keen to go through it. If the barn or shed doors are left open they will soon start investigating. It is surprising that they will enter confined spaces where there are no other means of escape.
Our sheep will always approach us when we appear. (Conditioned to expect food.) If we walk across their field they will usually follow.
When walking slowly or steadily from one place to another they use a gait that consists of alternate steps with their front legs followed by steps with the opposite hind leg. (i.e. front left, back right, front right, back left, and so on.)
As speed increases the movements of the back legs get closer together until they appear to be simultaneous. The front legs are still alternated but perhaps with one leg tending to lead. At greater speed the front legs as well appear to be used together or at least in very close sequence.
They will run away if frightened or startled. (or if one suddenly finds that the others have moved away). They will also run towards a source of food when being fed and sometimes they seem to run for enjoyment (play). A ram will run when chasing ewes and they will run away from him.
When excited and playful they will often intersperse their running and turning with a series of bouncing jumps where they appear to leap off the ground with all four legs at once. (The hind legs provide the main propulsion but all four limbs appear to be held rather stiffly.) They seem to keep their legs straight as they land and take off. The bounces only last for a few seconds at a time - (? 2-8 bounces) and appear to be a playful action. This movement is also used by Rocky when he is chasing Rita or Anne or when running up the field towards us as if challenging us.
During play running they sometimes jump into the air vertically using their hind legs. A twisting movement of the head and body often accompanies the jump. Rocky frequently jumps like this when he is excited.
Sometimes they run along making sideways movements with their head and body at the same time - almost as if their hind legs are overtaking their front ones. It seems a playful movement.
Sheep spend quite a lot of time lying down. (The time may well be related to the ease with which they find sufficient food.) They lie down by bending the front legs first, dropping their chest to the ground and then bending their hind legs to lower their hips. They tend to rest slightly on one side. One hind leg is sometimes stretched out forwards on the side away from the lean.
As they relax they often rest their head on the ground in front of them. Occasionally they roll over and lie on their side with all four legs stretched out. They often choose to lie against a support such as a fence or wall. In hot weather they choose a place in the shade if possible.
They can often be seen scratching even when apparently completely healthy. They often rub their side or head against a fence post or corner of a building. The hind feet are sometimes used to scratch the front part of their body and the horns are used to scratch along their back and side. They will also use their mouth to bite parts that they can reach. Sometimes they sit or lie down in order to reach parts of their body.
(Rocky enjoys butting hay nets so his wool gets full of small pieces of dried grass. This seems to irritate him and he can often be seen scratching. He also tends to rub his head against objects, perhaps to mark them with scent?)
Ewes crouch with their back legs slightly apart and their back rounded while they urinate. They will do this wherever they are and do not appear to choose any particular place even when housed. If they are frightened they will sometimes urinate, apparently as a fear response.
They appear to defecate whenever they feel the need to. Commonly this is while walking or grazing. The tail is raised and is sometimes wagged as the waste is passed. This has the effect of spreading the pellets of dung over a slightly wider area. If there is an area where they choose to rest it soon becomes heavily polluted with droppings.
The stools themselves are usually made up of individual blackish coloured pellets that are very loosely held together. They often break into individual pellets as they hit the ground. Sometimes they stick together more firmly. If an animal is unwell (scouring) the stools are paler in colour and not formed into distinct pellets.
Normal "Baa" - the sound they make when calling to each other or when calling for food. The intensity of the sound varies with the degree of distress. The more anxious they are the louder and more emotional the sound.
Welcome "Baa" - this is more of a quiet mumbling baa which they sometimes make when they are pleased to see us (with food). I think they also make this sound when re-united with a companion after separation.
Lambing "Mutter" - Ewes make a very distinct sound when they are communication with a newly born or very young lamb. It is a series of gentle grunt-like sounds often given while the lamb is being groomed.
"Grunts" - Rocky makes a sort of snorting, grunting sound when we put his head collar on prior to feeding. He also makes the same sound if we hand feed him but not usually when he is feeding from a bowl.
About 1/2 hour into labour the "water bag" appeared, followed shortly by the front legs and nose of the lamb. Rita still kept getting up and lying down until suddenly the whole of the lamb passed out. Rita stood up and this movement seemed to break the umbilicus and membranes.
She immediately started to lick the hind legs and back of the lamb then after a few minutes she concentrated on the head and ears. At times she almost seemed to be pulling the lambs fur between her teeth and pad. Gradually she worked all over the lamb who was meanwhile trying to stand and move to the udder. The lamb appeared to get its first milk while Rita cleaned its tail and rump.
After feeding, the lamb settled down and Rita began contractions again. About 1/2 hour after the birth of the first lamb the second was born very easily and the cleaning process began again. We left Rita to get on with it. An hour later all three were fine and the lambs appeared to be content and well fed.
Notes on Carol - 1999
3/4/99 - Carol surprised us by having twins last night. (Ram + Ewe) We didn't notice them until about 11:00 after we had been to Torrington to fetch antibiotic for Raquel's eyes. They were born with the other 4 ewes around but they seem to be OK. They look small but this may be just because we haven't seen lambs for a year. They appear to be feeding well. We dipped the umbilical cords in iodine and checked that milk was coming from Carol.
Not much sound from the lambs so they are probably not hungry. Carol occasionally making quiet "grunty" lamb sounds.
Carol went to the Ram on 4th November 1998 so the maximum gestation period was 150 days. She probably came on heat about 3 days later.
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