I was reflecting on how it feels being herded around by our self-appointed corporate, government and financial managers, for our own protection of course, so I began searching for ‘behavior” and “sheep”among other keywords and up came a delightful brochure from Canada full of great “voice of experience’ advice on how to herd sheep. My guess is that there are a lot of “Homeland Security” training manuals that read pretty much like this one from Canada’s “Sheep Bureau”.
Want to play an entertaining little game? Read through this brochure and substitute the word ‘people‘ every time you see the word ‘sheep‘.
When you’re done, put a number to how many behavioral traits seem to be shared between People and Sheep. 50%? 75%? My money is on 90%. As they say in the very beginning of the Sheep Handling brochure:
“Understanding sheep behaviour is the key when handling sheep.”
Specific Behaviour Traits
Sheep are created with specific behaviour traits. Knowing what these traits are can make handling them much easier.
Sheep are social animals, so try and prevent seclusion.
Sheep by nature are followers; let them follow and don’t drive them as you would cattle.
Sheep are docile animals by nature.
Sheep have good memories; these memories need to be positive ones as much as possible.
Sheep react to their surroundings, this includes the working environment and facilities; the following suggestions will help make the experience positive:
Sheep like routine, so be patient when introducing something new.
Sheep reactions are predictable, so use them.
Sheep react negatively to loud noises and yelling.
Sheep will bunch up in corners to protect themselves.
When moving, gathering or sorting sheep, the more efficient the operation the better; wool grabbing and rough handling will cause bruising.
Sheep tend to move in the opposite direction of the handler.
Sheep have a flight zone, determine what this is for your flock.
Sheep move best when not afraid, so work slowly and calmly.
Sheep do not like to move into the darkness; place a chute facing a well lit area.
Sheep move better on a flat surface or uphill.
Sheep will move towards other sheep.
Sheep will move to a partially full pen.
Sheep will move better through long, narrow pens and chutes rather than square pens and wide chute systems.
Sheep resist moving from one type of surface to another.
Sheep have no depth perception, so shadows, dark surfaces and water are an issue.
Sheep fear new visual objects.
Sheep Behaviour: Moving Sheep
Sheep can be led by shaking a bucket of grain, driven
from the rear, or both with a dog or person to
help. When driving sheep use a distracting noise first to
alert them. A plastic trash bag, rattle( plastic bottle filled
with stones), sticks knocked together or a bark from the
dog will get the sheep on their feet and moving away from
Pressure develops from being too close to the flock of
sheep. Use a minimum of noise and pressure so the sheep
travel slowly and take a steady course. Sheep have a
psychological distance or “flight zone” within which they
try to distance themselves from the handler. A safe
distance to follow behind the flock is three body lengths
( about 10-12 feet) behind the rear of the group.
Sheep at a run are out of control, except over long
distance. If they are really frightened they will run away in
a panic. When this happens only a swift dog can overtake
the leader and turn the sheep around.
Guide the sheep to the pen by moving them at a brisk
walk along physical barriers such as a fence line, laneway,
the sides of a building etc. Sheep move best on level
ground or uphill. Most of their weight is over their rear legs
making it awkward to move quickly down hill, especially if
the ewes are pregnant. Make sure all the gates are open
to the gathering pen. As the sheep approach, ease the
pressure on them so they can find their way through the
Holding pens should be rectangular so sheep flow down to
one end, rather than square which may start a circular
flow around the edges and back out of the pen. Holding
pens and catch pens should have open sides so the sheep
do not feel trapped. They should be able to see other
Decoys can be used in this manner to lure sheep into pens
Crowd the sheep close in a smaller pen so that the
shepherd can handle them easily without them running
out of reach. If a small pen is not available, crowd the
sheep into the corner of a large pen, using a portable
hinged panel to close in the rear of the group. Secure the
ends of the hinged panel to the sides of the pen to confine
the animals. The crowding area should have corners with
no less than a 90 degree angle to keep the sheep in the
corners from being crushed or smothered.
A workable group will be up to five sheep deep, and four
sheep across (or within arm’s length on either side.)
Deeper pens of sheep are more difficult to step through,
front to back. The sheep should be gathered up tightly,
with standing room only and a few feet to spare in the
rear for you to work an individual. Sheep are too close
together when some are piling on top of each other or
the weak ones have dropped down out of sight.
Let the sheep quiet down for five to ten minutes before
working them again. When you enter the pen, don’t
climb over rails, use a gate and enter in a nonthreatening
When moving sheep up a loading ramp or down a
narrow chute stay approximately 10 feet back from the
last sheep to avoid having animals in the rear turn
around and run past you. Keeping this distance away
from the group gives you time to react to the flow of
sheep while still creating some pressure to move the
If sheep become wedged together in a narrow spot,
move around the bunch to the front and use noise or
visual distraction such as a broom or crook to force the
sheep to step backwards.
Avoid stepping through the center of the flock because there is no easy escape for
you when they free themselves.