Counting sheep – revealing the truth about our woolly friends
If you take a drive through the rolling countryside of rural New Zealand, you will struggle to miss the sight of sheep perched on pastures and hillsides.
While they have a significant presence on farms across the country, sheep are also a popular choice for many who own lifestyle blocks or have the land to keep them as farm companions.
There are approximately six sheep to every human in New Zealand, yet how much do we really know about our woolly friends? Can they be left to care for themselves? Why are they always in big groups?
Here we reveal five of the most important facts you need to know about this muchloved farm animal.
Sheep need pampering, just like us
A sheep’s luscious wool coat never stops growing. Shearing a sheep’s wool is important to ensure it does not grow too long and become unmanageable. Much like the coat of a cat or dog, if left ungroomed a sheep’s coat can become matted and painful. A thick coat can also be extremely hot for them during the heat of summer, so in the same way we store away our merino clothing for the summer, it is best to trim your sheep’s thick fleece.
If left unsheared in the winter, a sheep’s wool can become heavy with water and mud and cause mobility issues. You may have heard of the term ‘cast’ when referring to sheep – this is when a sheep gets stuck on their back, often because their fleece is too heavy or matted. If they manage to fall into this position, it can be fatal, which is why a properly trimmed coat is ideal.
Shearing can be a little tricky and requires the right equipment, so consider hiring a professional shearer who can visit your home and remove your sheep’s thick winter coat ready for the summer. Sheep can also experience a serious condition called ‘fly strike’ that can causesevere pain and discomfort, as well as health problems. This is where maggots from blowflies infest dirty wool and eat away at the skin – another important reason to keep on top of maintaining your sheep’s coat. Check with your vet for other ways to prevent ‘fly strike’.
Sheep are herbivores
This may seem a little obvious, but it is vital for their wellbeing that sheep have access to enough pasture. This includes grass, clover and other pasture plants, which sheep are known to graze on for up to nine hours a day.
For this reason, having a highquality grassed area to keep sheep is key for them to maintain a healthy gut. Their diet can be supplemented with commercial food in the form of hay or grains, but this is only recommended if you do not have enough land or space, or the appropriate type of grass to keep up with their constant munching. If you do supplement, keep an eye on their weight, as sheep can be prone to overindulging. Your vet can help with advice here. Interestingly, sheep actually have a unique way of eating their food, which stems from them having four stomachs (they are a kind of animal called a ruminant).
They will chew and swallow their food, then regurgitate, chew it again (called chewing the cud) and re-ingest the food. It sounds a little off-putting, but this efficient technique helps them obtain all nutrients from the pasture – quite an impressive evolutionary trait. Did you know that they also do not have any upper incisors (the front teeth in the mouth)? They use their top gums and bottom set of incisors and their back teeth (molars and pre-molars) to grind away at grass.
A cosy home to snuggle
While they graze throughout the day, sheep like to cosy up to sleep at night. Even though they are at home in the outdoors, shelter is vital for them to hide away from New Zealand’s unpredictable weather.
A shelter is multipurpose – it can be used for shade and respite from the sun’s rays in summer, and as a source of warmth at night and during the colder winter months, and for protection from the elements (such as rain, wind and snow).
A barn, or three-sided timber stall is suitable – be warned that metal shelters can transform into a toasty greenhouse during the summer, so are best to be avoided. On the topic of keeping them safe and sheltered, fencing is also recommended to prevent sheep from wandering too far from home and to protect them from dangers such as busy roads or dogs.
More than meets the eye
Sheep are well-adapted beings who are more intelligent than you might first think (even if some people may think of them as unexciting creatures of habit). They are highly dependent on their excellent peripheral vision and can see behind them, even when their head is not turned; this is possible thanks to their large rectangular pupils.
There are other ways in which they are adaptable. Just moments after lambs are born, they are able to stand and walk around – quite impressive for a newborn. Sheep can be trained to come for food, which can be very beneficial when they need shearing and veterinary treatment. Similar to our canine companions, they can be clickertrained if you have the time and patience! Sheep are also great communicators with their own kind,and have many vocalisations and varying meanings.
Sheep pay attention to their surroundings and are switched on to anything that might pose a danger to their wellbeing – this explains why they may run from humans approaching unexpectedly. Their intuition tells them that, as natural prey animals, they need to keep their wits about them.
Safety in numbers is certainly how sheep look at life. They are happiest and feel safest when accompanied by their own kind in a flock or herd, which is why you will rarely see a sheep on their own – if you do, this may be a sign that something is wrong. Sheep do well in the company of other farm animals, and often become friendly with goats or pigs.
Who doesn’t love an interspecies friendship? Shining the light on their intelligence once more, you might be interested to learn that sheep can recognise the faces of more than 50 other sheep and goats. Without exception, sheep need company, and will get anxious, unhappy and afraid if they are not surrounded by other sheep. If you plan on keeping sheep in a lifestyle block situation, consider a group of at least four or five. Any fewer and they may feel too isolated. A group of sheep makes for a chorus of happy baas!