Sheep are domestic animal that spends most of their time in a barn. They’re adaptive and can easily adjust in most areas of the world. Sheep have been raised for thousands of years and have been domesticated since the beginning of time.

They have been a valuable resource to humans ever since we learned how to domesticate them. So, have you ever wondered how sheep survive in the wild?

In this article, we’ll answer this question and more about these domesticated animals.

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Classification of Sheep

Sheep are a part of a vast group of animals known as ruminants. They belong to the biological family Bovidae. This biological family also includes other animals, such as goats and kudus.

These mammals originated in the Middle East and Central Asia. Then they spread to other parts of the world through human migration and introductions by other cultures. Most species thrive in climates that are cool all year-round.

Sheep are herbivores. Usually, they feed on grass leaves, twigs, shrubs, and grain products. They prefer eating fresh, lush green grass as it’s more nutritious than a dry one. Like other bovines, they change their diet seasonally. During winter, they eat less roughage and more concentrates.

Texel sheep in the grass
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Can Sheep Survive in the Wild?

Sheep have been domesticated for over 10,000 years. So, it’s not surprising that they have lost the survival skills they would have had in the wild. But, sheep are still ruminants and have several characteristics. It means that they can survive to a greater or lesser degree if released into the wild.

When you think about sheep surviving in the wild, you imagine an animal with all the characteristics of wild animals. Sheep aren’t aggressive animals. They’ll not defend themselves against predators as other wild animals do. Also, fending for themselves will pose a challenge.

Without human intervention, sheep are vulnerable to disease. The other factor is how much food source is available to them. Sheep require substantial amounts of food if they’ll survive for any length of time in the wild. Grasses and leaves can provide sufficient nourishment if there’s enough of it available.

Their ability to graze and browse gives them a wide range of possible habitats. But, winter temperatures will make life very difficult for them in most areas of North America and Europe.

According to National Geographic, sheep can live longer when domesticated than when living in the wild.

sheep eating grass
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What Factors Make Sheep Survive in the Wild?

Sheep can survive in a variety of conditions found in nature. It has been observed that they thrive in the wild, although they have enemies who hunt them down.

But, certain factors make sheep thrive and maintain a significant population in all types of environments. Some of the factors include:

The Sheep’s Defense System

Many factors help keep sheep safe in the wild. But, their most effective defense mechanism is their ability to run fast and flee from danger when necessary.

Sheep usually live in herds of about 20-30 individuals. It makes them targets for predators, such as wolves and coyotes who hunt in packs. When there’s a threat nearby, sheep will rush towards the center of the herd where it’s harder for predators to attack an individual animal.

Also, sheep have a strong defense system. They have huge horns, which they use to fight off predators. The horn of the sheep is its only defense system which makes it dangerous to predators. They can be used for pushing and throwing off attackers. Sheep also use horns to inflict severe injuries on any predator that tries to attack them.

Predators, such as dogs and wolves, are afraid of sheep and their horns and will do their best not to get in contact with them.

Sheep also have a sharp instinct in sensing danger. They know how to take cover.

sheep running away from predators
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Handling Rough Terrain

The steep and rocky terrain of the mountains and hills where sheep live provides them with many hiding places and safety zones. The higher altitudes also boast healthy vegetation, which helps the sheep to survive in the wild.

Sheep can climb or jump from one rock to another easily. They can also cross the riverbeds as well as large rocks overhanging the riverbeds. It helps them avoid contact with predators such as wolves and eagles.

Additionally, sheep tend to remain in open areas where they can easily spot any approaching predator. When a predator appears, they run into the nearest hill or mountain and hide among rocks and boulders.

The presence of forests in these areas offers an excellent source of food for the sheep. They graze on pastures located at high altitudes during winter seasons. The lush green grasses provide them with an excellent source of food. During summer seasons, they move down towards lowlands and feed on various types of vegetation located at lower altitudes.

Living in Herds

The best way for sheep to protect themselves from predators is to live in a group. Predators usually go after the weakest member of a herd first but a dominant male sheep will be strong enough to fight off a lion or tiger. But, he won’t be able to keep up with a pack of hyenas.

Besides, living in herds offers protection from both direct and indirect threats. Predators won’t waste their time attacking individuals from a herd that’s too large for them to hunt down one at a time.

So it’s not surprising that sheep have evolved into social creatures. They develop complex social structures and form tight-knit groups that defend against predators.

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Ability to Live in Extreme Weather Conditions

Sheep can tolerate extreme weather conditions. Special protection from cold weather, strong wind, and rain make them stronger than other animals.

The wool of sheep can help them survive in different temperature levels. It is a natural insulator that helps them withstand the extreme cold. While providing excellent protection against the sun. It doesn’t allow moisture to escape. Thus, it keeps its body warm in winter and cool in summer.

Excellent Hearing Ability

Sheep can hear sounds four times better than the average human being. Since they have large ears, they need to have the optimum hearing ability. This way, they’ll be able to detect any predator approaching. Common sheep predators include bobcats, lynxes, wolves, coyotes, bears, lions, tigers, dogs, pumas, fox, and many other animals.

cotswold sheep
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Can Sheep Survive in The Wild Without Shearing?

Sheep that live in the wild don’t need shearing because their coats keep them warm during the winter and cool during the summer. However, according to Farmsanctuary, it’s possible for sheep living in the wild to shed their extra wool by rubbing against trees and shrubs. It also helps to prevent parasites, such as lice.

The sheep's coat is made of two layers of wool:
  • The fine and soft underwool
  • The coarse outer layer called “guard wool”

The guard wool helps protect the sheep from rain and snow and repels insects. The coat also protects from heat and cold.

A sheep’s coat does not usually grow continuously. The growth of the underwool is determined by the climate where the sheep live. Usually, sheep living in a cold climate will have a longer growth of underwool. Those living in a warmer climate or those living year-round in temperate areas don’t grow long.

Fleece from different regions can vary greatly. Some fleeces are fine and dense, while others are coarse and open. The quality and texture of the fleece depend on the sheep breed.

Sheep in the wild often grow thicker coats to keep them warm. In this case, they don’t need shearing. The wool can be so thick that it keeps the sheep too warm, so they shed their extra wool when the weather is warm.

Can Sheep Survive Without Human Intervention?

Yes, sheep can survive without care from humans. Besides, they have been surviving without care for a long time. So, sheep are not completely dependent on humans for their survival. But, they can’t thrive, and that’s the problem.

In the wild, sheep are prey to a lot of predators. But, they’re also known to have a strong herd mentality. So, they follow the leader in the herd. It’s called flock mentality and can be used to protect them from predators when there is a strong leader in the herd.

Do Wild Sheep Live Long?

Usually, sheep living in the wild are smaller than their domesticated counterparts. Some species can be up to three feet tall at the shoulder. Many domestic sheep reach only two feet.

The North American bighorn is one of the largest species of wild sheep. Males reach up to four feet in height and weigh up to 200 pounds.

Wild sheep don’t have a long lifespan as compared to domesticated sheep. But, most species live for about ten to twelve years in the wild. Domestic sheep live longer than their wild counterparts. It’s because they are better protected from predators and have more access to food. Wild sheep are more likely to die from predation or starvation than natural causes.

Usually, domestic sheep live for 12 to 14 years. But, some breeds live for as long as 20 years. According to data collected by Livescience, the longest-living sheep on record was a domestic Merino. It lived for 27 years.

bond sheep in the field
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Conclusion

Sheep are large ungulates that humans have domesticated throughout the ages for both their meat and their fleece. Contrary to their peaceful, pastoral image, sheep are adaptable creatures. They’re able to survive in a wide variety of habitats around the world. But, no matter where they live, sheep are still livestock. They’re not meant to live long in the wild, and they still rely on humans for food and water.

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