A sheep’s only defense against predators is to run. That’s one of the main reasons they have a keen flocking instinct (the more sheep they surround themselves with, the less likely it is that they will be eaten). About a quarter million sheep and lambs are killed by predators in the United States each year. This results in an annual financial loss to farmers that totals about $20,500,000. What eats sheep? It depends upon where you live.
Sheep predators are a major concern to anyone raising sheep. On this page we’ll offer some statistics about what animals eat sheep, and how to increase the safety of your flock.
By The Numbers: What Animals Eat Sheep?
Coyotes are responsible for more than 50% of all sheep deaths to predators in the US each year. Dogs are the second most dangerous sheep and lamb predator at nearly 23%. Mountain lions take just under 8% of the sheep killed by predators each year. Bears rank as the fourth most dangerous sheep predator … responsible for 4.5% of annual sheep deaths caused by predation in the US.
Lynx and Bobcats take just over 3% of the total each year. Eagles responsible for about 1% of lamb deaths to predators. Foxes have about 0.5% of sheep predator deaths per year and the final 8.5% can be attributed to a collection of animals including wolves, vultures, ravens, and unknown predators).
|Approximate % of All Sheep Killed per Year*
|Lynx & Bobcats
|Other Animals (wolves, vultures, ravens, etc.)
Most sheep predators are opportunists, and will take any sheep which is the most vulnerable. This means predators typically target lambs or older ewes first.
Smaller sheep predators tend to always prey on lambs because they are more manageable. Large predators like coyotes, dogs, bears, and mountain lions will kill any sheep they can catch.
Sheep Predator Control
No form of sheep predator control is 100% effective. But there are steps you can take to protect your flock from predators.
The first step you can take is to keep your flock away from predators. Most predators will hunt sheep at night, so closing your flock in the barn, or keeping them in small, secure corrals near your barn or house will help to protect them.
Most predators are afraid of humans, so some shepherds will leave a radio on in the barn with the sheep, changing the channel every few days so there is the sound of human voices in different cadences and rhythms to make predators nervous about approaching.
A good fence, when used in tandem with a livestock guardian, and bringing your stock in at night is generally the best strategy to reduce predator losses.
Sheep Guardian Animals
Livestock guardians are becoming more and more popular with shepherds as a way to protect their flock of sheep. These animals live with the flock year-round, and will attack and drive-out any predator which tries to do them harm.
The most popular sheep guardians are guardian sheep dogs (Great Pyrenees, like the one pictured above, tend to be the most popular breed), llamas, and donkeys.
Llamas and donkeys in particular have a strong hatred toward any canine, so shepherds should be aware that they will attack your dog just as enthusiastically as they would a coyote.
Lethal Predator Control
Shooting, trapping, poisoning and more forms of lethal predator control are your last resort.
It’s important to note that if your location is hospitable to one pack of coyotes, it will be hospitable to another. So if your land provides adequate food (other than your sheep) to the coyotes that reside in your area, and they generally leave your sheep alone thanks to good fencing, then it is not in your best interest to hunt the coyotes.
A personal story to illustrate this point: on my family farm a hunter killed the coyotes that had resided in our area for over a decade. The next spring a new pack moved in and killed about 5% of our lambs. So be careful you don’t shoot the good guys only to incur years of expensive and time consuming predator control efforts.
In general, sheep predators can be stopped best by well maintained electric fencing with a strong charge. A livestock guardian to accompany your flock will provide added peace of mind.