Fight or flight: Stressed sheep will react differently
Environmental stressors such as accidents during transport cause sheep to react differently than normal. When faced with such situations, docile sheep can become agitated and may even rush people who are trying to work with them.
Sheep are prey animals and their natural instinct is to flee when in a situation they perceive as dangerous. They use the flight reaction as a way to avoid danger. A sheep that is by itself often feels vulnerable. After fleeing a distressing situation, the animals will regroup, turn and face the danger.
Sheep have excellent senses that help them avoid danger. Wide angle vision, the ability to direct their ears toward sound, and through an acute sense of smell are all helpful traits that keep sheep safe from predators. Sometimes, in the case of an accident, they perceive humans trying to handle them and help them out of a dangerous situation as predators.
All animals have a flight zone and point of balance. Sheep are no different, although they do have a much stronger herding instinct than some other species. The flight zone is the animals “personal space”. The flight zone is different for individual sheep and can vary depending on the situation. Some sheep may be friendlier and have a smaller flight zone, while others may hang back and have a much larger flight zone. If a person enters this personal space, the sheep will try to increase the distance between itself and the person.
A sheep’s point of balance is usually the shoulder of the animal and can be used to make the animal move forward or backwards. If the person is in front of the shoulder, the animal will usually move backwards and if behind the shoulder the animal will generally move forward.
A stressful event such as an accident involving sheep that are being hauled in a trailer can change the behavior of even the tamest animals. There will be different sounds (passing vehicles on the highway) and different smells (perhaps blood from an injured animal). Injured animals may be in pain. Flight zone may be increased, and the herding instinct may be greater than normal. These animals must be approached and handled with great care.
The Michigan State University Extension animal agriculture team has created an online course to help educate first responders, law enforcement officers, animal control officers, members of the livestock industry, and those involved in the transportation of animals to prepare them for emergency situations involving livestock. This course consists of 12 educational modules highlighting animal behavior, animal handling, response protocols, incident chain of command and proper skill sets to be prepared for these types of emergencies. The ERAIL course can be accessed through MSU Extension's Emergency Response to Accidents Involving Livestock Course. For questions about the course, please contact Beth Ferry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 269-876-2745.