Sheep – handling

Information about handling, training and showing sheep.

Schools that keep sheep must have the use of suitably constructed yards and a race. These yards and race may be portable but must be solid in construction and erected in a way to be safe for both humans and sheep.

Fences, gateways, gates and all facilities used to handle sheep must be constructed and maintained to reduce the risk of injury.

Sheep must not be lifted off the ground by only one leg, or by the head, ears, horns, neck, tail or wool, unless in an emergency.

Sheep that are not standing must not be dragged by only one leg, ears, tail or wool, unless in an emergency.

If a dog is used with sheep, then it must be under control of the teacher, farm assistant or person in charge of the activity, at all times. If the dog habitually bites sheep it must be muzzled while working sheep.

Approved activities Category
Observation of animal behaviour 1
Observation of particular animal behaviours, e.g. oestrus, parturition 2

Sheep are a species that are preyed upon. This means they feel more comfortable in a flock as this provides comfort and protection. Individuals will become stressed if isolated from the rest of their flock. It is important to avoid getting in between an isolated animal and its flock as the animal will feel vulnerable and want to return as quickly as possible to its flock. This behavioural trait can be used while mustering as one sheep will want to follow the others.

Importance of observation

Sheep have wide angle vision of 191 to 306 degrees. It is important to take this into consideration when handling sheep. Loading ramps and races should always have solid walls to prevent animals from being able to see distractions with their wide-angle vision. Animals can be frightened or balk if they see moving objects and people outside of the race especially if they are not completely tame or unaccustomed to the facility. Blocking the sheep’s vision will prevent escape attempts.

Sheep’s wide angle vision gives them a blind spot behind them. Standing in the animal's blind spot for too long will cause the animal to turn and face the handler, stopping forward movement.

Sheep have a flight zone that will influence how they can be handled depending on whether they have a large or small flight zone. Sheep will have a decreased flight zone after extensive handling when they feel comfortable around the handler and in handling facilities.

The flight zone demonstrates this behavioural characteristic.

In areas where sheep are handled, illumination should be uniform and shadows and bright spots minimised. For this reason it is much better to have sheep moving across the slats on the floor of shearing sheds rather than along the slats. Flapping objects or items such as clothing hanging on a race may stop animal movement.

Sheep have a tendency to move from a dimly lit area, to a brighter lit area. For example a light shining into the entrance of a loading ramp or truck will encourage the sheep to move towards the lit area providing the light is not shining directly into the animals’ eyes.

Facilities should be a complete uniform colour as a sudden change in colour on the walls of a facility may cause animals to balk or stop suddenly.

Sheep have depth perception, however their ability to perceive depth at ground level while moving with their heads up, is poor. To see depth at ground level the animals will lower their heads and stop to look at a drain or change of surface texture on the ground. This means that when moving sheep, allow time for them to lower their heads and look at an object or changed surface. With time they will generally move forward with limited pressure.

Four principles that are important when working with sheep are:

  1. Position. The position of the handler in relation to the eye of the sheep is extremely important. This means that the handler should always work animals on the side.
  2. Pressure. Whatever pressure is applied must be released. This translates into moving towards the animal then moving away, stopping the movement of the livestock talker and reducing the number of people in the yards.
  3. Movement. This can be increasing or decreasing the movement of the handler’s body or livestock talker. Jumping, waving or using a livestock talker are all acceptable and effective ways of increasing movement. Sticks, flags and livestock talkers should be used as extensions of the handler’s body. They should not be used as a tool to hit animals with.
  4. Communication. It is essential that the handler communicates clearly to the sheep and to the other handlers.

The way that sheep behave during handling is a result of:

  • the amount of handling they have had
  • the quality of that handling
  • their genetics.

Mustering, drafting, capture and handling of sheep

Approved activities Category
Mustering, drafting (in crush or bail head), capture, restraint and handling of non-free-living domesticated animals (leading or riding an appropriately trained animal). 3
Familiarisation 2
Image: Fences, gateways and all facilities used to handle sheep must be constructed and maintained in a way to be safe for both humans and sheep.

Best practice mustering and handling starts with good preparation. This involves setting up gates to allow flow and movement but always aiming to have control of the sheep movement. This requires a balance between having gates open and/or closed at the chosen points.

It is essential that livestock handlers maintain good communication between each other and that all facilities and equipment that will be needed for the job are prepared and in good working order.

Mustering involves gathering up individual animals and groups of animals and bringing them together. Sheep have a natural flocking behaviour and the activity of mustering should take advantage of this. It is important that sheep walk not run when being mustered. Sheep that run to yards end up being agitated and need to be rested before they can be worked again.

Extra care should be taken when handling pregnant ewes, lambs, lame sheep and rams.

It is essential that the handler knows exactly how many animals fit comfortably into each of the yards, the force and the race. This increases the efficiency of yard work and decreases the chance of injury to animals and humans.

Mustering sheep into yards

Particular care should be taken when catching or restraining a segregated sheep, especially rams, as they can become aggressive and may cause injury.

It is best to return sheep to feed and water sources as quickly as possible after mustering and yarding.

Information about yard design can be found at Sheep yards and equipment.

The position of the handler in yards is extremely important if drafting and moving sheep into the race is to be achieved with minimal stress. Livestock tend to curve around the handler to avoid pressure, to maintain the handler in their field of vision for as long as possible and to avoid having the handler in their blind spot.

Parallel movement can be used to draft animals from pen to pen, to count animals and to move animals along a race.

Image: Moving along the race in the opposite direction to the desired direction of movement of the animals, will move the animals forward.

Using parallel movement demonstrates the basic principles of working sheep safely and efficiently in yards.

Sometimes assistance to move sheep can be gained by the use of dogs, livestock talkers and goads. These are tools and rely on correct usage by the handler. Their correct usage can be seen in Handling aids for moving livestock

Image: Livestock talkers can be used as extensions of the body to increase the movement. They should never be used to hit or strike animals.
Image: If a dog is used with sheep, then it must be under control of the teacher, farm assistant or person in charge of the activity, at all times.

During dry weather sprinklers or misters should be used in yards to settle the dust.

Sheep should be returned to feed and water as soon as possible after handling. Unnecessary sheep handling should be avoided during extreme weather.

A summary of these handling techniques can be seen on

Best practice sheep handling

Image: Using parallel movement and understanding that animals tend to curve around the handler can maximise efficiency in drafting and moving animals through the yards.

Catch, restrain and throw sheep

In order to perform procedures like hoof trimming, crutching, teeth inspections, wool quality tests and ear tag checking, a sheep will have to be caught and restrained. Catch and throw is a good method of restraining an individual animal.

It is best to start in a small clean yard with the individual animals that you wish to restrain. Take care not to pull the wool throughout the procedure as this can bruise the sheep and damage the wool. Rams should only be handled by an experienced person, as they are larger and may be aggressive especially during the breeding season.

Catch and restrain

Catch the sheep with one hand on the rump and the other under the muzzle, keeping the sheep as close as possible to your legs.

If necessary, straddle the sheep to properly restrain it.

Catch and throw

  • Catch the sheep with one hand on the rump and the other under the muzzle.
  • Turn the sheep’s head around as far as possible away from yourself.
  • Pivot yourself backwards around with the sheep following. The sheep will go down on its rump.
  • Lean the sheep against your knees and apply pressure with both knees in order to secure the sheep in a grip.
  • To release the sheep, let it drop onto its front legs. It will quickly regain a standing position.

Video: AWI Improver - Catch and Drag

Image: Catch the sheep with one hand on the rump and the other under the muzzle.
Image: Lean the sheep against your knees and apply pressure with both knees in order to secure the sheep in a grip

Showing sheep

Approved activities Category
Familiarisation 2
Training/gentling 3
Training for competition or showing 3
Tethering/restraining for shows 3
Coat care and grooming 2
Coat/fleece clipping 3
Hoof paring: sheep & goats 3
Loading and unloading animals onto transporters 3
Showing animals at school and away 3
Image: Time and effort needs to be put into training animals for the show ring.

Time and effort needs to be put into training animals for the show ring. Training is best done slowly from a young age. Sheep suitable for showing need to be specially selected based on their temperament as well as their conformation. Sheep need to be introduced to the halter slowly once they are accustomed to the atmosphere naturally created by groups of students.

When sheep are taken to shows it is the responsibility of the teacher or staff member in charge of the sheep to check that the movements have been recorded on the NLIS database. Many show societies complete these recordings but this is not guaranteed and so schools must ensure that movements both to and from the show have been recorded.

Image: All movements to and from shows must be recorded on the NLIS database.


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