Sheep Sex

Well, I guess I could’ve picked a more subtle title, but it does sum up my topic and attached video pretty nicely. If you are interested in behavior, and doing good ethological style observations, here’s a video for you. I had just introduced Redford the Ram (so called because he is handsome and talented but shorter than expected, like Robert Redford) to the ewe flock.

Before I go any further, don’t worry about his bright red chest, he’s not bleeding. It may look like a slasher movie, but the red stuff on his chest is “breeding paint.” You mix a powder with vegetable oil (I passed on my expensive Olive Oil and used the more moderate Canola oil, but don’t tell him) and smear it on the ram’s chest so that you’ll know who gets bred and when. Any ewe with a red butt has been bred. It’s sort of fun… every morning Willie and I run out to the barn and look for a new red butt…. (5 so far!). In this video, some of the paint has been smeared on the ewes, but he hasn’t bred anyone when it starts. We put them together, herded them into a small pen, smeared his chest and then let him out, so this is his first time back with his ewes since early summer.

The video shows him investigating the ewes to determine who is cycling, including doing “Flehmen,” a behavior in which the male sniffs around a ewe, often smelling her urine, and then raises his head and upper lip. (Lots of male hoofed animals do it, horses included) This posture apparently allows them to more easily pass the large molecules associated with oestrous into their Vomeronasal organ, a sensory device housed in the upper palate.

Redford does find a ewe in heat, and then illustrates his version of courtship behavior, which I’d categorize as something akin to “Nerdy guy performs appallingly lame foreplay.” Most rams do what’s called a “fore leg stab” in which they raise one front leg and push it into the belly of the ewe. If she stands still and doesn’t move forward, she’s ready and it’s worth using the energy to try to mount her. Redford replaces a fore leg stab with a chest pump that seems designed to put off any but the most desperate of females.

But you can see it works. What I find most interesting about the video is the behavior of the ewe in question, Lady Godiva. (She’s all brown, black face, chocolate colored… watch for her early on trying to get his attention). When I watched the video the second time, I paid more attention to her and realized how active she was in the process. She is no shrinking violet. As a matter of fact it looks like she had to work to get Redford’s attention at one point. Notice how she urinates in a place that he can’t miss, and how often she ‘wags’ her tail (and is the only female doing that–the only other time you see sheep ‘wagging’ their tail is when they are nursing, unless they are slapping off flies.)

And yes, that huge white sack hanging at the back of his belly is exactly what you think it is. No wonder Lady Godiva stood still.



  1. Debbie says

    Wow, he left out the “Bam”, as in Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am. LOL Talk about fast. Do they repeat breed over the course of a few days, or is that it?

  2. JJ says

    I found all this rather educational and fascinating. I must admit, I know nothing about farm life, let alone what red chests have to do with sheep sex.

    I’m still left with lots of questions like: Why do you care which ewes got “bred”? Just because they were bred doesn’t mean there will be babies, does it? I mean, you don’t get a human baby every time there is sex. Do you get a sheep baby every time there is sex? The other side of the question is: what happens to the ewes that don’t get bred?

    Why use the term “bred”? I would think term that would mean ewes that had had babies as opposed to a euphemism for sex.

    Why is it desirable to have Mr. Butler as the father if he’s so short compared to other sheep? Is it possible that Butler uses the chest bump because he’s too short to lift his leg up to the female tummies? Or maybe it is a genetic thing? Or lack of coaching from a good male role model?

    I really appreciate your post explaining what I was seeing. It made it all so much more interesting. Also, the explanations made the video funny watching Mr. Butler and knowing that he’s not being so very suave.

  3. Alexandra says

    That was quite interesting – I had no idea ewes would “put it out there” for the rams quite so much!

  4. Ignacio says

    That “breeding paint” is such a smart idea, low-tech but highly effective! Do you keep the other males separated, or do you use a different color for each male? (I’m not sure if sheep are monogamous).

  5. Susanne says

    “Cheap sex” could of been another title option for this subject…. I personally find it fascinating to observe “behaviour” irrelevant if it be a dog, sheep or human. Its like reading a good detective story, thanks for mixing up the bag of goodies to broaden our horizon.

  6. lisa says

    Or is it RAM Bam Thank You Mam. That really was fast.Did he finish or did they do it some more?

    Just wondering if a dog would take as long to figure out which bitch was in estrus….

  7. says

    Is the airborne lick-lick-licking Redford seems to be doing before and after coupling with Lady Godiva part of the Flehman maneuver? It almost looks like some sort of appeasing gesture, but they both seem so matter-of-fact about the moment (literally: moment!) between them that I’m guessing it’s something else?

  8. Liz F. says

    Funny and interesting stuff.

    Any correlation between Truffles (I think?) being rambunctious the other week and the breeding order? Was she one of the other ewes close to Redford?

    Loved Lassie’s roll at the end; she seems slightly less interested in the sheep than Will!

  9. rheather says

    After having to deal with too much goat sex lately(scheduled breeding, unscheduled breeding, and when did that happen? breeding) sheep and goats are a lot alike. Do rams blub like bucks? A kind of baaing with his tongue hanging out the side of the mouth. I think of it being a bad 70’s pick up line-if the doe stands for that she’s really ready.

    And you are going to get so many hits from the title…..

  10. Kerry L. says

    When I lived on a farm, many years ago, a ‘gomer’ bull was put in the pasture with the cows. The gomer had a vasectomy so couldn’t impregnate the cows but would mount them and spread the paint so we knew which cow to bring in to the bull. Ewe’re lucky that Redford is so attractive.

  11. Mary Beth says

    I’ve always thought that anyone who really wants to understand behavior ought to watch animals being bred! I’ve studied animal behavior for a long time and I’ve been around farm animals, but I bred my male dog a few times and boy was it an education! The dance that they go through and all the different cues. Its frustrating to be around the shelter where so many people only deal with neutered animals and they don’t know how to deal with a bitch in heat, a momma dog and litter of puppies or how to deal with an intact male and which behaviors truly are breeding behaviors. If I ever breed a dog again, I’ll have to video it for the study of behavior.

  12. Trisha says

    Some answers about reproductive behavior in sheep: The ram ‘consorts’ with the ewe the entire time that she is in “heat” (interesting term, hey?). Yesterday Redford was beside Brittany as if attached to her; every where that she went, he was sure to follow. The ewes stay cycling for about 24-36 hours, and the ram stays with the ewe the entire time if he can. This is to avoid another male breeding her. (It’s all about sperm competition.) And yes indeed-y, the actual act of copulation may be short, but the ram will mount and ejaculate many times during the ewe’s cycle.

    And yes, if they ‘get bred’ then they should have lambs in five months. You do indeed get a lamb (or better, lambs) after a sheep has been “covered,” unless there is disease or extreme stress. Good question about why I’d use Redford as a stud ram if his legs are so short. It turns out the length of the end of his legs (cuz that’s really what we’re talking about) is irrelevant to how good a breeder he is, and to the quality of his lambs. What’s great about Redford is how muscular his body is, and how long it is. That means that he should sire lambs that have lots of muscle in the places you want it if you are breeding market lambs… the upper leg (“leg of lamb”), the shoulder and his long body means lambs with lots of lamb chops. (Apologies to those of you who’d rather not think of such things, but I do raise market lambs for people who eat meat but want to know that it was raised in a way that is humane both to the animals and to the land.) If you’re still with me, watch the video again, and notice that although Redford is short, his body is extremely muscular and long. That makes him a very valuable ram. And I can attest that his lambs from last year were great.

  13. Trisha says

    Great question about the tongue flicking-lick-licking from Redford. I don’t know the answer to the question, but I do see the rams extrude their tongue even when they haven’t done Flehman (which usually refers just to the raise of the head and the upper lip). It is definitely part of courtship behavior; I saw Redford doing it as he stood beside Brittany as if he was about to mount her (he didn’t, he kept looking at me, then Will, tongue flicked some more but then put his head down and ate grass). I don’t see lambs doing it around their moms or other ewes, so I doubt that we could call it appeasement behavior, but I wouldn’t say no definitely. But definitely part of courtship. (I never see the ewes do it back or do it to another ewes, even when they are meeting up and establishing hierarchy, which can be downright dramatic. It’s not just rams that ram into one another!)

    And don’t worry… I titled the video differently on YouTube! I figured the title Sheep Sex on YouTube might become a bit, uh, problematic. (I was worried that people would think Redford was bleeding though!)

  14. Debbie says

    The use of the term “breeding paint” calls to my mind a funny incident (tho not so at the time) that happened many years ago when I was living in Great Britain. I constantly saw sheep that had various colors on their rear ends so, curious, I asked some male friends why these sheep had that ink on their “fannies”. This question was answered by loud guffaws…imagine how mortified I was when they explained that the word “fanny” in British English is a crude reference to a woman’s parts!

  15. JJ says

    Thanks for the additional explanations! I’m definitely feeling more educated. I’m going to really wow people at the next party. 😉

    I’m a vegetarian, but I respect those people who choose to eat meat but take great care about consuming only animals who had humane lives and deaths. Your sheep clearly live humane lives. I hope where they go gives them a humane ending too.

  16. Anne says

    I observed something in my flock this season. I have an older ram and a young ram and put the ewes in with both of them. There are also several wethers (neutered males) in the flock. The old ram went straight to the ewes and started testing, smelling, flehmening. The young ram went right up and mounted one of the wethers. I’m not sure if he was confused, the old ram had left him no chance at a ewe through some sort of signal, or if he was trying to establish dominance over the wether.

  17. Jimany says

    I’d never thought to ask anyone before, but is there a reason those buildings are painted red? I’ve seen it on a few of the farms around here, and it seems to be the stereotype(google image search ‘barn’).

  18. Anne says

    Red paint was cheaper than other colors in the old days, is what I have heard, and then it became traditional for barns in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest. Other places don’t have so many red barns, I think.

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