Behavior in an animal is defined as its response to its environment. A basic understanding of sheep behavior will make raising and handling sheep less stressful for both the sheep and shepherd. It will also dismiss the notion that sheep are a stupid animal.
Sheep are best known for their strong flocking (herding) and following instinct. They will run from what frightens them and band together in large groups for protection. This is the only protection they have from predators. There is safety in numbers. It is harder for a predator to pick a sheep out of a group than to go after a few strays. Flocking instinct varies by breed, with the fine wool breeds being the most gregarious.
Follow the Leader
When one sheep moves, the rest will follow, even if it is not a good idea. The flocking and following instinct of sheep is so strong that it caused the death of 400 sheep in 2006 in eastern Turkey. The sheep plunged to their death after one of the sheep tried to cross a 20-foot-deep ravine, and the rest of the flock followed. Even from birth, lambs are taught to follow the older members of the flock. Ewes encourage their lambs to follow. The dominant members of the flock usually lead, followed by the submissive ones. If there is a ram in the flock, he usually leads.
Sheep are a very social animal. In a grazing situation, they need to see other sheep. In fact, ensuring that sheep always have visual contact with other sheep will prevent excess stress when moving or handling them. A group of five sheep is usually necessary for sheep to display their normal flocking behavior. A sheep will become highly agitated if it is separated from the rest of the flock. In addition to serving as a protection mechanism against predators, this flocking and following instinct enables humans to care for large numbers of sheep. It makes sheep easier to move or drive and enables a guardian dog to provide protection for a large flock.
Domestication and thousands of generations of human contact has further strengthened this trait in sheep. Domestication has also favored the nonaggressive, docile nature of sheep, making it easier for people to care for sheep. Sheep were one of the earliest animals to be domesticated, and they have been thoroughly domesticated. It is doubtful they could survive in the wild, if a predator risk existed.