Are There Wild Sheep?
When sheep come to mind, many of us will picture the cute, fluffy sheep of petting zoos and county fairs. Appearing to be soft and harmless, you may think that sheep surely could not survive in the wild, without humans to guide them, feed them, and shear them.
Can sheep survive in the wild? Sheep certainly can and do survive in the wild. While most domestic sheep have been bred over the years to rely on humans for survival, there are still many breeds of wild sheep, thriving in the canyons and hillsides. Some of these breeds include Rocky Mountain Bighorns, Dall Sheep, and Stone Sheep.
Believe it or not, but wild sheep tend to live in the most treacherous landscapes in the world, some living on the side of sheer cliffs. Wild sheep are known to be tough, hardy, and efficient at finding food and escaping predators. To learn more about wild sheep, keep reading!
How Do Wild Sheep Survive?
If you look at a most wild sheep breeds compared to domesticated breeds, you’ll notice that the wild breeds often look more rugged, with long shaggy hair. They also are a bit more intimidating with large horns protruding from the brow. Most of us have seen the videos of wild sheep scaling sheer cliff faces and charging at predators or other rams that threaten their territory or flock. So how do they do it? How do sheep survive in the wild?
The Senses of a Wild Sheep
While domesticated and wild sheep have the same instincts and senses, wild sheep must rely on their senses more often than domesticated sheep. In the wild, there’s no livestock guardian or shepherd to protect them. Sheep are aided by their monocular vision, sense of smell, and hearing.
Sheep have monocular vision; this means that their eyes are on the side of their head rather than on the front like most predators. This eye placement gives them unlimited peripheral vision – their wide, rectangular pupils gives them a 320 degree field of vision. This means the sheep can see what is behind it without turning its head. When a sheep is grazing, it will rotate its eyes so that its pupils remain level to the ground, maintaining its field of vision. Sheep also see in color, further helping them identify predators.
While they can see almost completely around themselves, sheep have poor depth perception and can only clearly see things up to 20 ft away. In order to efficiently sense predators, wild sheep must rely on more than one sense.
With an olfactory bulb 2 to 3 times the size of a human’s, sheep also have a strong sense of smell. An olfactory bulb transfers scent recognition from the cells in your nose to your brain. Sheep use this not only in predator detection, but also in mating and lamb rearing. Sheep can even smell things up to 2 miles away when they stand facing the wind!
Sheep also have an excellent sense of hearing. They can direct their ears according to the direction a sound is coming from, to better pinpoint where the direction danger may be coming from. Sheep tend to be afraid of loud and high pitched noises. Sheep can pick up sounds from miles away, and will become spooked by any sound that’s out of the ordinary.
How Wild Sheep Protect Themselves
Unlike it’s helpless reputation found in story books, the sheep’s defenses should not be underestimated. Sheep have many attributes that help them to evade or fight predators – from it’s clever use of habitat, to its hooves, horns, speed, and its social structure.
How Wild Sheep Protect Themselves Using Their Habitat
While it may not fare well on the ground against a mountain lion or a pack of wolves, the wild sheep can certainly out-climb its predators. Outfitted with uniquely designed hooves and a low center of gravity, sheep are well known for their climbing abilities. From the Dall Sheep in the Yukon territory to the Desert Bighorn in Arizona, wild sheep have one thing in common – you will find them on rocky, unfriendly terrain. When sensing a predator, wild sheep will escape higher up onto the ledges to avoid getting caught and eaten. Most predators simply cannot access these steep cliffs and gorges.
How Wild Sheep Protect Themselves Using Their Hooves
Just how do sheep climb cliff edges so deftly? Due to the harder edges and the softer center, the hooves of a sheep are designed to allow them to climb ledges of just 2”. The center of a sheep’s hoof is spongy – resembling that of a human foot’s heel. This allows the hoof to mold to the terrain it is standing on, giving it a strong grip. The rigid outer edge of the hoof allows the sheep to grab onto and hold the slightest cliff protrusions, giving it the unique ability to snag and climb.
Hooves are not only good for climbing. Sheep are strong animals, their natural habitat causing them to be lean and muscular, and they can kick with force.
How Wild Sheep Protect Themselves Using Their Horns
We cannot talk about a sheep’s natural defenses without bringing up horns. The shape and dimensions of a sheep’s horns will vary depending on their breed – however all wild rams have strong horns that they can use to headbutt predators (and rival rams!), with 10 times the force of two human football players. When two rams clash, there is such strength, the sound can be heard up to a mile away.
Wild Sheep Can Evade Predators By Running Away
Sheep can run up to 20 miles per hour – this may not be their strongest defense, but cannot be ignored. More incredibly, sheep can jump 15 – 30 feet, which wild sheep will tend to use more as a fleeing tactic.
Wild Sheep Protect Themselves By Living in a Flock
Of course, one of the best defenses of many prey animals is that of their social structure. Sheep live in flocks, and as the saying goes, there is safety in numbers.
Flocks can vary in number from 10 to 100. There is no one leader in the herd, and males tend to stay separate (but close) to females and young, in “bachelor bands” for the majority of the year. Ewes, lambs, and immature males and females stay together, with a small group of ewes often watching over the lambs while the rest of the mothers graze.
To learn more about how domesticated sheep protect themselves, check out my article How Do Sheep Protect Themselves? Essential Guide.
Do Wild Sheep Need to Be Sheared?
If you’re familiar with sheep at all, you probably know that wool sheep have to be sheared at least once a year to maintain hygiene. What about the sheep in the wild? How does their wool get removed once it’s become to big and heavy?
Domesticated Sheep Have Been Bred for Wool
Sheep were among one of the first animals to be domesticated by humans, used primarily for meat and milk. Around 3,000 years later, humans realized the potential in the sheep’s wool and began using it for garments. This enabled humans to travel and live in colder climates than they previously were able to.
Since this time, domestic sheep have been bred for wool production – breeding animals for fuller, longer coats. This resulted in sheep that will endlessly grow wool until they are shorn. Domestic sheep are typically shorn once per year – if left unshorn, the sheep’s wool will continue to grow and become a hazard to the animal.
Wild Wool Sheep VS. Domesticated Wool Sheep
Not all sheep produce wool, and the wild sheep that do produce wool need no help from shear-handed humans.
The Dall and Stone sheep are wool producing wild sheep. The wool can grow up to 2” thick, and it molts naturally once per year between March and July. These sheep need no help in shedding their wool.
But what about the Bighorn sheep? Bighorns do not produce wool at all! They are hair-growing sheep, with a coat closely resembling that of a deer’s.
Wild Sheep Mating and Lambing
The breeding practices of domesticated sheep are often closely monitored to produce lambs of high-quality. Domesticated pregnant sheep are often fed extra grain and given special supplements and space to ensure that she stays healthy during the process. Wild sheep, on the other hand, don’t have these luxuries. The breeding and gestation processes are not monitored by anyone. Here’s what you need to know about wild sheep mating, gestation, and lambing:
Wild Sheep Courtship and Mating
There are 3 ways that a ram will court a female for mating; tending, coursing, and blocking.
As its name implies, tending is when a ram will follow a ewe for days, protecting her and standing guard. This requires strength and diligence, and takes more time than the other two methods of courting. This method is usually worth the extra work however – ewes are most receptive to tending, making it the most successful form of courtship.
Other males may choose coursing as their method of choice to court a female. Coursing is the act of fighting for an already tended female – challenging a ram who is in the process of tending. This can be a risky choice, as even if the coursing ram wins the fight, ewes tend to avoid coursing males.
Blocking is the act of preventing a ewe from entering the tending area. A ram will choose a ewe who has not yet gone into estrus and will physically block her from being tended by other males.
Wild Sheep Gestation and Birthing
Once a ram succeeds in courting and mating a ewe, he will stand guard over her against other rams for approximately 3 days, after which he will leave to court other females.
Sheep gestation is between 4-6 months. With mating occurring between November and December, lambs are birthed between May and June. Ewes will give birth to one, and occasionally two, lambs at a time. Lambs will stay with their mother and will wean between 4 and 6 months of age.
Wild Sheep Lifespan
Wild sheep can live up to 12-14 years; however, the odds are against them living in treacherous environments and constantly having to fend off predators.
While domesticated sheep are often mated before the age of 1, wild ewes do not reach sexual maturity until their second or third year. Wild rams do not typically mate until around 3 years of age, because of the social hierarchy. More dominant rams will mate much more than other rams and will even fight to ward of the younger males who may try to mate the ewes.
Wild Sheep Breeds in North America
There are four species of wild sheep currently living in North America. These are the Rocky Mountain Bighorn, its subspecies the Desert Bighorn, the Dall Sheep, and its subspecies the Stone Sheep. Read on for the unique characteristics of these strong, fascinating animals.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn
With rams reaching up to 300 pounds, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn is the largest breed of wild sheep in North America. They can be found in Canada and the Western United States, down to New Mexico. The Rocky Mountain Bighorn is a dark brown / dark gray in color, with a white patch on the rump and muzzle.
The Desert Bighorn is a subspecies of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn, with rams reaching up to 220 pounds. As its name implies, they can be found throughout the South Western United States – in Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California – and in Northern Mexico. The Desert Bighorn is lighter in color than the Rocky Mountain – found in shades of light brown and light gray.
The Dall Sheep is best known for its all-white color, helping it to blend into its surroundings of Alaska and the Yukon Territory. The ram reaches a size of up to 225 pounds.
The Stone Sheep is a subspecies of the Dall Sheep, reaching up to 250 pounds. It can be found in the Southern Yukon Territory and Northern British Columbia, and its color ranges from light gray or salt-and-pepper, to a dark charcoal.
While the domesticated sheep that we are more accustomed to may not be able to live without the help of humans, it is clear that wild sheep are anything but helpless. From their sharp senses to their inherent defenses and their lack of need for shearing, wild sheep are adept and successful at living on their own. Domesticated sheep may not have a reputation for being that smart, but wild sheep sure do! Want to know whether sheep are smart or not? Check out my article How Smart Are Sheep (The Answer Will Surprise You.)