The Herd Instinct in Sheep


Ottar Endresen

Experience shows the herd instinct to be present in various degrees, in the different sheep breeds. Is this an inherited character, or is it learned?

Or ,is it an inherited instinct combined with inviromental influence, making some herds of sheep show flockbehaviour, and other flocks to behave more egoistic on the grazing?

Sirdalsheiene                  foto O. E.

That the herd instinct is inherited, seems evident, when observe the behaviour of for example  the spaelsau and then specially the old type, cause it`s such a distinct flock-animal, in the right cirkumstances. One specially feels it, during the gathering of them in the highland pastures.  

Then the spaelsau is flocking, in opposition to for example  the Norwegian Pelt Sheep (A close relative to the Gotland Pelt Sheep), which generally shows individualistic behaviour. In stead of following the flock, it uses any opportunity to individually run off away behind a boulder or into some thicket.

My concern in this connection is, if I, as a sheep breeder can make a plan for the herd instinct to develop and eventually if it can develop in  a wanted direction. With wanted flock behaviour I specially think of two conditions: Flocking, as a defence against predators, especially foxes, hunting lambs in the spring, -and flocking, as wanted behaviour, to ease the gathering of them in the fall.

I’ve noticed then, how my own spaelsau rapidly flocks, almost as the musk-ox do, when I let my dog into the pastures. If the dog is offensive, the flock don’t take flight, but keeps quiet, while one or a couple of ewes launch an attack on the dog. The sheep of mine have horns and they’ve subjected the dogs to powerful strikes. Is it such, that knowing of the defence-capacity by the horns, strengthens the self-confidence of the sheep when predators attacks?

Sirdalsheiene                 foto O. E.

Another kind of reaction is seen ,when the sheep grazes, then they walk staying a flock, as if on a line and when they chew-cud, also then in flock, my spaelsau has a view to all sides, if they then observes a dog or some other danger at a distance, they take flight as a flock.

By the gathering at the fall, the spaelsau is easy. Do you find one, usually you’ve found all. Even though big livestock-flocks can split up in smaller units in the grazing season, they’re fast together again. I’ve been told that spaelsau summer grazing on highland pastures, situated close to their farmyard, often draws homeward in flocks.  

So, the question is: can we define or suppress the herd instinct by our way of sheep breeding?  

I ,by that, specially think of our habitual way, keeping the sheep during winter, the time of indoor-feeding. I’ve the idea that the flocks behavioural unity and correlation develops the best, when all ewes are born into the flock and gets to stay within the flock, for the major part of the winter season, this includes NB! Also the yearlings.

Modern sheep breeding has caused enclosure in separated pastures and fencings, for many month

in a row, already from the time of fall, when the young ewes, are kept on their own fodder. The same applies to the separation of the fat sheep in the time of stall-feeding . My claim is, that if we’ll let all sheep, including the yearlings, get out every day collectively, the flock behaviour is kept alive and probably also strengthened. Then develops an order of rank, who also take advantage of the horns as status-symbol and then, the yearlings learns from the behaviour of the  elder ewes.

Won’t it be a lot of work, to separate them in groups, every time they are taken in ? Till  that, is to say that the spaelsau ,whom I’ve worked with, learns quite easy. I separate them in three fencings: The yearlings, the two year olds and the elder ewes. I never fill their troughs with concentrates to get them in, but only with silo-fodder; because concentrates distracts too much, so they’ll go to the trough most easy to get to, and the first ones in, will eat most of the fodder.

After one week of consequent separation, where they realize the troughs are freshly filled ,when they come in, they separate on their own, almost without exceptions; even though the yearlings has to walk, crossing a big barn floor, into separate fencings, to which the doors are open. They’ll then get the concentrate in the morning, before they are send out, to a new day among the juniper bushes.  

Sirdalsheiene              foto O. E.

In the winter a grown ewe broke her foot and had to stay inside a fence, in the back of the enclosure of the other ewes. It was possible to have nose/smell contact during nights. But when I after a couple of month, let her out to the other sheep, their behaviour, also the yearlings, showed that she was rejected from the flock! She was regularly bullied and had lost her rank and had now another rank than before. Did the sheep understand, she would be a drag to the flock, with her slow and limp walking ? That she in this way could attract predators?

The sheep has a peculiar sound of warning by danger. The one sensing it ,blows through the nose with a hissing "physsssssttt". Immediately all the sheep pays attention. Do the guard blow once more, the sheep rapidly flocks and eventually takes flight if the danger is still present.

I have used this characteristic when I’m checking the sheep on the spring/fall pastures. I must add that they’re mostly tame and I can walk among them, without any special reaction on their part. Many of them also likes to be scratched under the chin and cuddled. When I come out on the pasture and see some of the sheep at a distance, I copy their warning sound, once and twice ,and rapidly sheep is swarming out from thickets and fens, gathering as a flock. Notice, I’ve not shown myself to them, yet. When I then call in my normal way, they come storming toward me, to get some cuddling, though I never carry concentrates or salt or other eatables.

These where my thoughts and experiences with the flock behaviour of horned old Norwegian Spaelsau.

Another article by Ottar Endresen describing his typical West-Coast sheep farming  will be translated from the Scandinavian pages of Sheep-Isle during the fall. Pictures from this article, click here!

This article is a co-operation between  Norwegian Sheep Breeders Association (Sau & Geit) and Sheep-Isle.