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The sheep’s only defense is flocking instinct that is the more sheep they are surrounded with, the less likely a predator will attack.
In the US alone, approximately a quarter-million lambs and sheep are killed each year, resulting in millions of dollars of financial losses to the farmers.
Knowing what animals kill sheep will help you increase the safety of the flock by implementing different predator controls.
What Eats Sheep?
- Mountain Lions
Primarily raised as livestock, sheep are widespread on many farms throughout the world.
Wild sheep species like North American bighorn live in remote places. No matter where they live, wild or domesticated, sheep get preyed upon by the carnivores living nearby.
Sheep have multiple natural predators including coyotes, wolves, foxes, bears, dogs, lynxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and others.
Grizzly and black bears also attack sheep frequently. The most common sheep killers are coyotes, dogs, and wolves.
Sheep are generally innocent, gentle, and defenseless, that’s why they get attacked often.
Due to their inherent vulnerability and lack of effective defense techniques, they are easy targets for many carnivores.
Some primitive breeds have developed unique fight patterns to successfully escape predators.
Each year, thousands of adult sheep and lambs are killed by the predators, costing farmers and ranchers millions of dollars.
Losses due to predation can not be ignored, therefore, shepherds try to employ some techniques for sheep protection.
Of all the sheep killers, the coyote is the most deadly one and is responsible for the killing of thousands of animals each year.
Coyote is accountable for killing approximately 54.3% of all the losses due to predation.
That makes up more than half of the sheep losses for which coyotes are found guilty.
Each sheep predator attacks differently, coyotes like to aim at the throat. This animal has clever hunting strategies and kills the animal within minutes.
They mostly go for lambs as they are easier to tackle. The population of lambs killed by the coyote is twice the number of sheep.
Time of Attack – Coyotes usually hunt sheep at night or early morning hours, being quick and competent killers, their attacks do not last very long.
Hunting Strategy – They attack the smallest, slowest, and most vulnerable sheep by biting in the throat just behind the jaw and under the ears. They keep the grip until the animal dies of suffocation or internal bleeding.
Coyotes are the culprits for the majority of animal losses, therefore, shepherds living near the forests have been driven out of sheep business due to catastrophic losses.
The next most frequent sheep killers are dogs, they are responsible for about 21.4% of the sheep killed every year.
A number of sheep operations are affected by the frequent attacks of wild and free-ranging dogs.
Especially in Australia, a wild dog named Dingo is known for attacking and killing sheep.
A huge number of adult sheep and lambs have fallen victim to the attacks of dogs and doglike animals.
Similar to other predators, dogs have their own unique predatory habits and feeding characteristics.
Unlike coyotes, dogs do not attack a specific part of the body or usually discriminate how, when, and where they attack.
Time of Attack – Dogs are quite unpredictable when it comes to the time of the attack as they can hunt at any time during the night or day.
Since they are a bit incompetent and inefficient predators, it takes longer for them to kill.
Hunting Strategy – Therefore, a group of dogs attacks the vulnerable animal, killing one or two sheep.
While attacking, they usually go for the flanks, head, and hindquarters of sheep.
They are generally non-selective, do not think much while hunting, and attack sheep of any age.
Dogs only attack when they need food to survive, it is not quite possible for them to hunt alone like coyotes. To tackle a sheep, usually more than one dog is required to do the job.
3. Mountain Lions
Not many prey species are saved from the wrath of Mountain Lions (cougars, pumas). They are responsible for 5.6% of losses.
The wild species of sheep, Bighorn, is greatly affected by the attacks of these vicious animals. These lions mostly attack flocks of sheep.
The damage done by these predators is so random and unpredictable, killing a huge population of livestock in a short time.
Sheep, lambs, goats, calves, and deers are the go-to food options for Mountain Lions.
Time of Attack – Mountain Lion hunt alone and stay active from dusk till dawn. Taking their prey from behind, they like to dine on livestock and other wild animals.
Hunting Strategy – Broken necks are quite common in Mountain Lion attacks. Sheep are killed by a bite to the top of the neck or head.
They bite at the throat and maintain the grip till the animal dies. They leave marks on the prey and cover the carcass with leaves, grass, and other debris.
Mountain lions have believed to have a negative impact on the population of Bighorn sheep herds in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado.
Bears, being omnivores, will eat just about anything including sheep. Being smaller in size than cattle, they are easier to handle by predators.
Lambing areas are prone to bear attacks as these small animals do not put up much of a fight.
Time of Attack – Bears tend to hunt and stay more active from dawn to dusk. They usually come out at night when it’s quieter and no one is around.
Hunting Strategy – Bears take on their prey by biting in the neck or back. They also kill sheep with a strike of their strong, sharp foreclaw, capable of breaking the animal’s spine. Often, they bit sheep in the stout leaving clear, visible marks.
Though bears would not shy away from attacking sheep given the opportunity, their attacks account for a small percentage of total sheep losses (about 5.0%).
Wolves are the most common sheep killers in Europe, North America, Asia, and North Africa, however, they are only blamed for 1.3% of the total sheep losses.
Wild and insufficiently protected herds can not be saved from the attacks of the wolves.
Wolf attacks are quite distressing for farmers and ranchers. This natural sheep predator is responsible for killing thousands of sheep in the US alone.
Time of Attack – Being nocturnal, wolves tend to sleep in the day and hunt at night.
It does not take a lot of time for the wolf to kill multiple preys. When hunting large and powerful prey, they hunt in packs.
Hunting Strategy – It hunts in a similar manner as Coyotes and Mountain Lions. They also kill sheep by attacking the throat but the damage done to the underlying tissue is much more.
Wolves do not kill sheep for sport or fun but for survival. It is a common notion that they kill the sheep and left them uneaten.
This behavior is known as surplus killing where wolves may kill more than they can eat.
Other natural predators involved in the killing of sheep are Eagles, ravens, vultures (1.2%), Bobcat or Lynx (1.1%), and Foxes (0.5%). These somewhat smaller predators prefer lambs over adult sheep.
It is not possible for them to kill more than one lamb or old sheep in one episode. They keep waiting in the hide for the opportunity to kill the animals when there is not much resistance.
Eagles, Vultures, and Ravens – Upon finding an unattended newborn lamb or old and sick sheep, these wild birds gather around it.
These birds skin out the carcass, leaving much of the skeleton intact for other animals to eat.
Being opportunistic feeders, bobcats do attack sheep given the chance. They pose a serious threat to domesticated sheep and wild rare sheep breeds as well, roaming freely in the pasture.
Bobcats bite the neck, throat, or skill, leaving visibly clear marks on the animal’s sides, backs, and shoulders. They start feeding their prey at the neck, shoulders, or hindquarters.
As per the stats, the attacks of foxes on sheep are nearly negligible. The incidents of foxes attacking healthy lambs and sheep are quite low but occur occasionally.
Given the opportunity, foxes will attack young lambs by biting in the throat.
Predation makes up for a significant portion of lamb and sheep losses. The severity of the predators’ problem varies by farm location and geographic region.
Though no technique is 100% effective, the following measure can save the flock from predator attacks.
Fencing – The most simple and obvious predator control begins with a good fence. Woven wire, high tensile electric, or net fencing will deter intruders and predators from entering the territory.
Livestock Guardians – These guardian animals include llamas, dogs, and donkeys that stay with the sheep and aggressively repel predators.Sheep baa when they feel attacked by predators.
Frightening Devices – Frightening devices have evolved over the years from simple scarecrows, bells, noisemakers to electronic guards. These modern devices use light and sound to scare away predators.
Plastic Collar – These innovative collars cover the sheep’s cheek and underside of the neck preventing predators to attack the throat.
Being kind and vulnerable, wild and domesticated sheep are an easy target for predators. To control predation, farmers adopt many lethal and non-lethal measures.