[Explained] Can Sheep Swim At All?

Although sheep don’t much seem to like being in water, they do need to be kept near an ample source of fresh water. Like all animals, they need to have plenty of good, clear water to drink to survive and thrive. For reasons that may include safety, sheep seem to prefer to drink still water rather than running water.

This is understandable, especially for sheep in full fleece. Imagine falling into running water while wearing a heavy wool coat. It would be very difficult to battle against the current and keep afloat with this heavy burden. Read on to learn what you need to know about sheep and water.

Can Sheep Swim At All?

can sheep swim at all

So back to the main question – can sheep swim? Sheep (including Bighorn sheep) don’t swim for fun, but like most mammals, they can swim if they need to. If water rises around sheep on pasture or in their barn, they will gather together and swim to safety as a flock.

Reasons a sheep might need to swim include:

  • Escaping danger
  • Getting to greener pastures
  • Getting to a prospective mate

Additionally, a shepherd and/or a herding dog can impel sheep to swim to get from one place to another.


Are Sheep Good Swimmers?

It’s not surprising that sheep are not especially good or graceful swimmers, but if they must, they will swim using a basic horse-trot or dog-paddle stroke. They are also able to simply relax and float if need be.

Even young, healthy sheep who are not in full fleece are not long-distance swimmers. They are simply not built for swimming and would tend to tire out and drown if they could not get to safety quickly.

Does Water Hurt The Sheeps’ Wool?

While you might think that swimming or even being out in the rain would spoil a sheep’s wool, the fact is (unlike alpaca fleece) sheeps’ wool is impervious to water damage because it is coated with a rich, natural oil called lanolin.

In addition to fleece, meat, milk and hide, lanolin is another valuable product which humans harvest from sheep. Lanolin (aka: wool grease, wool yoke, wool wax) is used in many personal care products and in products intended to preserve and care for leather and wood.

While the lanolin is still on the sheep’s fleece, it protects the wool from shrinking or otherwise becoming damaged. After the sheep is sheared, the lanolin is extracted from the wool.

Without the protection of lanolin, wool becomes subject to water damage because it will absorb any water with which it comes in contact. When saturated with water, a wool garment may weigh thirty percent more than it did when dry.

Does Getting Wet Hurt Sheep?

Although a sheep’s fleece will not become that much heavier when it gets wet, it can still cause a lot of problems for a soaked sheep. If the weather is cold and wet, and the sheep cannot dry off, the persistent dampness and chill can cause hypothermia.

A sheep that is suffering from this condition may :

  • Experience low body temperature
  • Shiver strongly and intermittently
  • Feel cold on exposed skin areas
  • Lose circulation in the legs
  • Seem weak and lethargic
  • Experience brachycardia

Young, healthy animals and/or those that have recently been sheared are less likely to have trouble with hypothermia after becoming soaked. Very old or young sheep; those experiencing ill health and/or those in heavy fleece are far more likely to suffer from hypothermia.

Pregnant ewes are also more susceptible to this hypothermia and to drowning if they become stuck in water. In addition to added weight, a heavy fleece can get caught on underwater hazards and prevent the stricken sheep from being able to escape the water.

Watch As These Amazing Dogs Save Their Sheep From Drowning

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Do sheep need exercise?

Like all animals, sheep do need exercise to improve the appetite and increase muscle development and condition. This is especially true of show lambs. You want your show lamb to be in top condition, and you want to be able to handle the animal easily. Regular exercise contributes to both of these requirements.

2. How do you exercise a show lamb?

A special treadmill or walking machine is a very good item of exercise equipment for a show lamb. This is not the same thing as a treadmill for people. It’s more like a small horse walker that allows several lambs to walk in a circle for a measured amount of time daily.

3. What is “tracking” a lamb?

Tracking is another form of exercise for show lambs and goats. With this method, you would need to build a track that is fenced on both sides and enlist the assistance of a well trained herding dog to encourage the lambs to take laps around the track. It is very important that the dog you use is specially trained to be gentle and not rush or nip at the lambs.

4. When is the best time to exercise lambs?

Always allow your lambs to exercise during the coolest part of the day, either early morning before turnout for grazing or in the evening before being put away for the night.

5. Is a forced exercise program necessary for lambs?

If your meat lambs are in a large pasture with natural obstacles for climbing and jumping, they may get all the exercise they need in the course of daily living. For these lambs, you are not concerned with show presentation and handling, so just letting them romp and enjoy their time should provide ample exercise for good meat development and quality.

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