Can Sheep Survive in the Wild? Here’s the Answer!


Here we’re going to answer the question that many of us ask when we see sheep roaming around the countryside. Can they survive in the wild? Surely they’re just a meal waiting to be eaten? Well here’s the answer.

In fact, here’s the quick answer first, then we’ll dive into a few more details…

Can sheep survive in the wild? Sheep were originally wild animals before they were domesticated by humans. Four main types of wild sheep survive in environments that they can defend and terrain that makes it difficult for predators to reach them. They have horns and hooves that can be used for defensive purposes too.

But there’s more to this than you might think, here are the main reasons why sheep can and do actually survive in the wild.

Terrain

Sheep are excellent climbers, having four firm hooves and a fairly low center of gravity helps enormously. Wild sheep and even some domesticated sheep survive by traversing difficult and rocky terrain that even some of the most deftly cat species cannot easily climb and certainly couldn’t attack from.

Defenses

Sheep, certainly wild sheep, aren’t without their defenses. Many have horns which, when charging head-on can deliver a huge blow, enough to break some animal bones. 

Add to this their hooves which can be used to kick any would-be predator and suddenly they don’t seem the meek and scared creatures you might take them to be.

Plus, they can run at around 20 mph, so there is always that option they can use too.

Herds

Like many of the ungulates, they are often found in herds – hence “flock of sheep”. Where the saying safety in numbers was never truer.

Traveling in herds has distinct advantages. It means there are a lot more eyes and ears watching out for prey and ready to alert the herd/flock. The young lambs are also, therefore, better protected by a greater number of adults.

It also means a clever defensive wall can be built against any invading predator force, which can act as a huge deterrent. And finally, it means that should the worst happen and one should be taken by a predator, the flock as a whole will survive intact.

Survival through the seasons

In the spring and summer, sheep graze happily on mountainsides, in the wild they will malt naturally so they will lose their winter fur by around July time. In the late Fall, sheep develop the fur they’re famous for, a thick woolen blanket that will see them through the winter and the harsh conditions.

They will have also fattened up on grazing through the spring and summer, so when food is more scarce with snow they will be able to survive with meager amounts of vegetation they can find between rocks and under thin snow.

Some sheep are well adapted for breathing in thin atmospheres, which enables them to climb higher than many other species and certainly most predators and still survive quite happily.

Wild sheep habitat and survival:

For survival in the wild, it’s very important for wild sheep to be aware of their territory and they are indeed well adapted to it.

Long before humans came along, sheep have been living for ages past and it’s evident that these wild sheep have been living through different environmental conditions in wild quite adequately in mountainous regions to desert climates, and from wetlands to hillsides.

Anatomy of wild sheep

Having horns is a normal characteristic of wild sheep. Aside from the horns’ secondary uses of protection to defend themselves from predators. The main reason for horns in wild sheep is mainly in order to seek dominance within the herd.

Feeding:

The wild sheep, along with goats are considered small ruminants, meaning ruminants help them to extract maximum possible nutrients from plant-based materials.

Sheep feed on leaves, green plants, and non-woody plants. They’re adapted to tough conditions as they have a compound stomach which helps them in regurgitation of food. The average meal intake of wild sheep is around 3lb in weight.

For desert environment wild sheep, they consume more food that contains water, such as cacti and can survive for up to three days without eating.

Wild sheep species that thrive in the wild

The world not only has domestic sheep but it also has wild sheep. Domestic sheep have more than 1,000 species but wild sheep have four main species named;

  • Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis)
  • Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelson)
  • Dall sheep (Ovis dalli)
  • Stone sheep (Ovis dallei stonei)

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep were homegrown is North America and Siberia. They’re named after their big horns – obviously – and can weigh up to 300 lbs, around 140kg. Their number decreased drastically by the 1900s, due to overhunting, but conservation efforts were put in place to return the species into their natural habitat.

bighorn sheep
bighorn sheep

Desert bighorn sheep

These are a sub-species of bighorn sheep. It can be found in Western areas of North America, as well as the Northern regions of Mexico.

They have adapted perfectly to the desert terrain, where they can survive for long periods without water.

desert bighorn sheep
desert bighorn sheep

Dall sheep

Also known as the Thinhorn sheep, This wild sheep is based around the northwestern areas of North America. It dwells in and around the mountain ranges of Alaska and grazes on vegetation found between rocky outcrops.

Their color ranges from white to slate brown, and they have curved, yellowish-brown horns. Their name – Dall sheep – was taken after the American naturalist William Healey Dall.

dall sheep
dall sheep

Stone sheep

This wild sheep is a sub-species of the thinhorn (Dall) sheep and shares the same regions and habitats. Their body markings have white patches on the rump and their rear legs, over a slate brown base color over the rest of their body.

You can estimate the age of a Stone sheep, the rams horn growth stops in the fall, creating a ring effect. By counting the rings you can estimate the sheep’s age.

Interesting wild sheep facts:

Wild sheep…

  • Can swim
  • Will eat snow for their water intake
  • Have cushioned protection under their horns to protect them from impact after charging

Learning Resources

Continue your learning about wild sheep with these books we’ve specially sourced on Amazon.

Return of Royalty: Wild Sheep of North America

How wild sheep are being reintegrated into North America

Video Resources

To finish…

We hope this has been helpful in understanding about wild sheep and how they survive. Be sure to check out our other articles answering questions you have always wondered about!

This content has been checked and verified by a qualified veterinary practitioner. The article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policy.

Michael

A Certified Ecologist and an Entomologist, Michael has been interested in all aspects of Nature for many years. It's only now he's decided, along with his partner Fran, to begin documenting what he knows.

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