Aside from seeing sheep grazing in fields, how much do you know about one of England’s most familiar barnyard friend? It’s a myth that sheep are stupid (they recognise up to 25 faces, and know if you are smiling at them!) They are also important for our ecosystem by grazing fields, though often suffer footrot due to damp ground. Live export is a huge sheep welfare issue.
If sheep fall over, they can die from bloat. So if you can’t find the farmer, turn the sheep upright by grabbing a leg or handful of fleece and roll onto her side (here’s a video) and keep hold for a few minutes until steady enough to join the flock. It’s very important to wait until rain has drained away, if wet wool was the cause.
There are over 1 billion sheep on earth (most live in Mongolia, New Zealand, Australia, China and Turkmenistan). Ewes are very good mothers who in a field of thousands of sheep, will recognise their lambs simply by the sound of their bleats. They can see 300 degrees (to see predators without turning their heads), thanks to their rectangular eyes.
In most cases, sheep do need to be sheared (not doing so is like putting a woolly overcoat on each year, and the heavy weight can cause sheep to fall over or not see predators). But many wool companies shear sheep too early for profit (leading to hypothermia) and others slaughter sheep when wool productions slows. Others use a technique called ‘mulesing’ (cutting flaps of skin around a lamb’s breech and tail to avoid flystrike, but without anaesthetic).
Free-range farmers course do their best to care for sheep. But we can help too, by eating plant-based alternatives (for all or some of the time, as there is not enough land to avoid factory-farms at present rates of consumption). Sheep used for live export often travel for days often crowded and without food or water. If you eat lamb or mutton, keep it local and free-range.
how to help our sheep friends
- Don’t disturb sheep in fields, they are nervous creatures who can miscarry. Open Sanctuary suggests leaving sheep to walk away if you see them (back off slowly from rams as they may charge).
- Keep dogs safe near livestock, to protect both creatures. See tips for safe dog walks (keep dogs on short leads on open access land between 1 March and 31 July). Read tips for safe dog walks near livestock.
- Find help (free feed, financial help and counselling) at Farming Community Network. If concerned over a sheep or lamb, call RSPCA for help.
- Write to your MP, asking what action is being taken, to stop live exports. Brexit means we can now opt out, but some companies instead are using WTO laws, which are even more lax.
- Read up on homeopathy for farmers and smallholders (courses run by qualified vets and homeopaths that includes info on good animal husbandry).
Find alternatives to winter woollies (hemp jumpers are as warm as wool). Why do vegans (and others) not wear wool? You can buy wool from sheep that are not harmed (Vegetarian Wool Company have their sheep live out natural lives in peace) and you can also buy sheepskins with the same ethos. In fact, this lets sheep farmers earn alternative income to meat from wool that would be sheared anyway, so they can spend it on medical care, food, barns etc.
- A Short History of the World According to Sheep is a beautifully written book, by Yorkshire anthropologist Sally Coulthard, who writes books on our most common creatures, from a shed in her old orchard. From the plains of ancient Mesopotamia to our Neolithic ancestors, discover the fascinating history behind our woolly friends!
- The Sheep’s Tale is a guide to our most misunderstood barnyard friend. Sheep are not stupid, cowardly or noisy. If treated well, they are good for the planet and form loyal friendships, and are also wonderful mothers.