By Laurie Ball-Gisch, The Lavender Fleece – Many people who are interested in keeping sheep hesitate because they have heard that rams are dangerous and hard to keep. So, are rams dangerous? Not if you follow these suggestions.
Rams, like all intact male breeding animals, will act-well, rammish—especially during the rut season. This is normal and natural and the way it should be. Rams often don’t get the respect they deserve, but their bad reputations are usually due to human mismanagement.
A ram can be an amazing animal to behold. Nothing catches the eye of visitors better than a well-horned, muscular and beautifully fleeced ram.
Our rams—for the most part—are very interested in what humans are doing. From birth on, rams tend to be friendlier than ewes. Most of our rams come eagerly to the fenceline to have their ears scratched or their chin rubbed. We do not make pets of our rams, but we enjoy their personalities and their handsome presence on our farm. Several of our rams are very protective and they will chase the dogs out of the field, stomping their feet and putting down their heads to protect the other sheep. Obviously, we really like our rams, because we have seven at this time and only 27 ewes!
Rams vs. Artificial Insemination
With the advent of artificial insemination, the mature ram is becoming harder to find on America’s sheep farms. Also, many people will use a ram lamb in the fall and send him to slaughter after the breeding season, so one may never see the full potential of a mature ram line.
Although we buy sheep of AI breedings from the best bloodlines in Iceland, we choose not to do AI ourselves on our farm. To do traditional AI would be too costly with our small group of ewes. A new vaginal AI procedure would make it possible to do the procedure ourselves, but buying and shipping a container of semen from Iceland would be too cost prohibitive for us. And to be honest, I cannot fathom myself interfering with Mother Nature. I personally like to let nature “be” and that means the old-fashioned coupling of a ram with his ewes.
Having the rams here on our farm and using them for several seasons allows us to know the personality of the ram, to evaluate his fleece and conformation for ourselves, rather than trusting somebody else’s opinion of a ram.
In addition, our emphasis here is not on “meat production first.” Meat conformation is the primary focus in Iceland, and so the resulting lambs may produce “better” carcasses, but that is not what is of primary interest to me when raising sheep.
Some ram and ewe combinations can consistently produce lambs superior to either of their parents. But some ram and ewe breedings will be problematic for a variety of reasons. There is, of course, always the mysterious potential of those dominant and recessive genes.
There are also some less obvious things that I learned the hard way that include noting the size of a ram’s forehead.
A ram that has a wide forehead can produce lambs with large foreheads that, regardless of whether or not horn buds are involved, can be problematic for some ewes’ deliverance.
Using a long-bodied, long-legged ram on a short-bodied ewe can cause the lambs to become entangled; they can have problems getting into a positive birth position and the resulting lambing time can be a nightmare for both the ewe and the shepherd.
Noting these problems and not rebreeding that same combination in the future would be advised.
Many times, I’ve had buyers who want to purchase only ewes. They want to save themselves the expense and work of keeping their own rams. They think they can “rent” a ram and bring him back to us or bring the ewes back to us for the breeding season. I know that this is a common practice for some breeders, but I will not do this on our farm. Because we are producing breeding stock, it is of utmost importance to us to keep our flock healthy. So we are very choosy now about which farms we bring in animals from, and we will not bring sheep back to our farm once they leave. This is also why I choose not to exhibit our sheep.
Since rams are an integral part of a breeding program, it is important that new breeders practice sound ram management techniques. Rams must be respected for the breeding animals that they are, but there is no reason to be afraid of rams. While no ram should ever be 100% trusted—meaning never turn your back on a ram—for most of the year rams are easy keepers. But no matter how friendly and easygoing they are, always know where your rams are when you are working in their pastures/paddocks.
For those who are new to handling breeding stock, I have put together some suggestions for ram management based on our experiences here at our farm and from talking with other breeders.
Suggestion #1: Companions
Buy two male animals—either two rams or one ram and a companion ram that has been wethered (neutered).
It is imperative that you never make a pet of an intact ram lamb. Are rams dangerous at this age? No, ram lambs tend to be very curious and friendly and it’s difficult to resist them. I have had ram lambs that at a few days old will seek out my companionship and tug on my pant leg for attention. It’s very tempting to pet these lovely and friendly lambs. But it is imperative that you remember that most aggressive rams are created by their owners.
That ram lamb who sees you as his friend will one day see you as a foe and a rival for his ewe group. The worst scenario for creating mean rams seems to be when people bring home one ram lamb and one or two ewe lambs and keep them together. New owners, besotted by these lovely sheep, (and usually the ram lambs tend to be friendlier than the ewe lambs) naturally want to spend time with them. But by sheep breeding season, that sweet friendly ram lamb can turn aggressive and dangerous. Maybe not so much in his first year, but perhaps dangerously so by the time he is a yearling.
I do believe that aggression in rams can be a heritable trait, however, this won’t be evident until the ram has reached maturity.
Suggestion #2: Isolate
This relates to suggestion #1—house your rams separately from the ewes except during sheep breeding season.
This way you will be able to enjoy your ewes and lambs freely, without having to watch your back for fear of a ram charging you. You don’t want to find out the answer to “are rams dangerous?” the hard way. You can let your children and visitors into the barnyard or field without fear of them being injured by a ram. And since I strongly recommend rams live in separate areas, you should have a companion for your ram. Sheep are flock animals, and should never be left alone.
During the summer months, some farms will let the rams run with the ewes and lambs for grazing. Since summer is not a sheep breeding season this management style may work for some. We still choose to keep our ewes and lambs separated from our rams.
The day that you do introduce rams to their ewe groups, be extremely cautious. Are rams dangerous at this stage? Absolutely. A ram that was benign in the bachelor paddock can suddenly turn very aggressive as soon as he is near his ewes. We have had “gentle” rams come straight at us upon moving them into a ewe group. This sudden exposure to the females makes the normally mild ram potentially very dangerous. Yup, this scenario will give you pretty fast answer to: are rams dangerous?
We always make sure we have extra help the day we put our breeding groups together. We usually have at least two of us moving the rams around and having extra help with gates, etc. is even better.
Suggestion #3: Fences
Make sure your ram fences are strong and escape proof. Are rams dangerous when they are trying to get to ewes? Yes, they are.
Many “unplanned” lambs have resulted from rams who have jumped sheep fencing or battered down gates that were not strong enough to contain them. The longer you wait to put your rams in with the ewes, the more this will become an issue.
One breeder, whose rams are separated from the ewe flock by a 25-acre parcel of land, reported a ram lamb that managed to jump two fences twice to get into the ewes’ pasture.
Rams can be amazing escape artists and extremely aggressive when it is sheep breeding season. Icelandic sheep are seasonal breeders, but that season can vary depending upon the climate they are in.
I have heard of one breeder who had a surprise Icelandic lamb born in January, which means the ewe “cycled” and was bred accidentally in early September (Strong suggestion: remove and separate all ram lambs from the ewe flock by early August).
The ewes will continue to cycle until bred throughout the winter months. So even after rams are removed from the ewes, if a ewe did not “catch,” and if your fences are not escape-proof, you may end up with ram(s) loose and where you don’t want them.
Suggestion #4: Segregate
If you are using two or more rams, do not put the rams with their ewe groups in adjoining pastures where they can “touch” each other at the fence line or gate.
Are rams dangerous to themselves and other rams? Rams have, in fact, battered each other through fences and gates, and have been killed this way. If they are going to be in adjoining areas, create a “dead space” between them with a double fencing system. For instance, we use portable, heavy gauge 16′ stock panels that are 52″ high and create a second fence line of at least 4′ of space anywhere that there will be two ram groups located in adjoining pastures. These heavy-duty panels are working well for us and are portable and can be easily moved around the farm throughout the season for different uses.
Creating visual barriers with tarps or boards so that rams cannot see each other also helps.
In spite of one’s best attempts at keeping rams safe from each other, rams can and will hurt themselves or each other. One breeder found a ram lamb dead of a broken neck on the other side of a 52″ woven wire fence; he had climbed/or jumped over to get to the ewes on the other side and broke his neck in the landing.
Suggestion #5: Husbandry
Are rams dangerous sometimes? Yes, but again, only with mismanagement. Rams need care like any other livestock on your farm.
It’s easy to focus all the attention of the ewes and lambs and neglect the rams. Be sure they get their yearly vaccinations for CD/T (The germs Clostridium perfringens types C & D-enterotoxemia-and C. tetani-Tetanus).
Trim their hooves regularly and make sure they are dewormed appropriately for your area. I hear over and over that shepherds will feed their rams the worse hay thinking the best feed should go to the ewes. This may be true, but if you want your rams to cover a lot of ewes, be sure your rams are in top condition.
Even if they only have a few ewes to service, rams will wear themselves thin pacing and keeping vigil over their flock. If your rams are shorn in the fall and the weather turns quite cold, they will need extra supplemental feed and protein to maintain condition.
Our sheep all have access to free choice minerals and kelp, but during the fall and winter I put out supplemental mineral/protein blocks and the sheep do consume them.
Suggestion #6: Confine
Be careful when putting rams back together. Are rams dangerous at this stage? They can be.
When reintroducing rams to each other, we have a small creep/pen type area in a barn that is just big enough for them to stand up and turn around. We leave them locked in together for around 36-48 hours so that they can get used to each others’ smells. They will want to “wrestle” and headbutt each other as they re-establish the hierarchy. Keeping them in tight quarters prevents them from backing up to get a “full head of steam” and really being able to hit each other hard.
We restrict their food and water for the last 12 hours so that by the time we let them out they are mostly interested in eating and drinking, rather than fighting.
Another trick we use is to spray their noses and genitals with an old men’s cologne to confuse their sense of smell (or you can rub Vick’s on their nostrils). This will help mask the smell of the ewes they were recently with. We laugh at this time of the year because the smell permeating from the ram barn is like a bar—all that nasty cologne; the only thing missing is the cigar smoke and the whiskey!
Before they are released from the “lock up” you can spread some old tires around their ground area so they can’t get up a full “run” at each other. Deep snow is also helpful in slowing down their runs at each other, but we can’t always count on snow to be available.
Also, time their release from their tight enclosure to evening, when it is almost dark.
It is best to put all rams and wethers together at the same time after sheep breeding season to save yourself having to do several small groupings and reintroductions, and to prevent deaths.
One breeder made the mistake of putting a ram lamb that had been with a couple of ewes into a pasture with his smaller intact twin and two wethered ram lambs who had not been with ewes. She turned her back to move some other sheep around and when she turned around five minutes later she found that ram dead of a broken neck and the three supposedly “benign” animals standing around him. Don’t ever underestimate the power of the testosterone, no matter what the size of the animals.
Even though our seven rams have been together (at this writing) for seven weeks, a couple of the rams are still trying to decide the hierarchy. My leader rams, who are of the most primitive genetics, tend to be the most aggressive with each other in trying to establish “head ram.” The ones who will usually fight the longest are those that are evenly sized. Usually, the smaller rams will defer leadership to the largest ram without putting up too much of a fight.
I do have one ram that acts as a peacemaker in the group. When two rams are running at each other, he will step between them, face his side to them and take the blow to prevent them from hurting each other. It’s quite amazing to watch him do this. Usually, after circling each other a few times, with him continuing to intervene, they will eventually give it up.
Suggestion #7: Caution
Always know where your rams are when you are working with them.
You can keep a big stick handy or a spray bottle mixed 50/50 with water and white vinegar to spray the eyes, should any ram decide to challenge you. You want your rams to respect and fear you and they should not be encouraged to come toward you. We do however, train our rams to corn, which helps us to catch and handle them.
I know one woman who has had ram lambs challenge her in the fall months. When this happens, she faces them squarely, grabs them by their horns as they come at her and then she throws them on their back; she sits on them to establish her dominance. They never challenge her again after she does this.
Suggestion #8: Matings
Segregate horned and polled matings.
Rams come either horned or polled or somewhere in between, in the form of “scurs.” We prefer horned sheep and since Icelandic sheep can be horned or polled, there is a lot of flexibility for personal preference.
We do suggest that if you have a mixture of horned and polled stock that you breed horned to horned and polled to polled. If you have a mixture it’s best to breed a horned ram to a polled ewe; it is not recommended to breed a polled ram to horned ewes. I do have several ewes that are polled or scurred but their sires were well-horned rams. In this case, I use my best-horned rams on these ewes hoping to produce well-horned ram lambs.
When bad horns are horns that will grow in too close to the face and become management problems. If this happens, horns must be monitored and sometimes cut back as they grow.
One of the problems with horns can be that occasionally a lamb will knock a horn off or break it. If this happens, spray the wound with a spray (like Blu-Kote) to prevent fly strike. If it is bleeding too much, you can use a blood-stop powder. Most horn injuries are fairly benign and heal over quickly.
If you use electrified netting (like ElectroNet), it can pose a problem for horned ram lambs in that they have been known to tangle their horns in the fencing and essentially hang themselves.
I have not seen any advantage of horns over polled rams in terms of their aggression towards each other. (Others may argue this point; some farms keep their polled rams separate from their horned rams).
When rams fight, they run front-on at each other, putting their foreheads down and “ramming.” Whether or not they are horned does not affect how badly they hurt each other, except that if they turn sideways they can poke an eye of another ram with a horn tip.
Never keep a mean ram. Disposition is a heritable trait.
So now you know. Are rams dangerous? Only if they aren’t managed properly.
What suggestions do you have for proper ram management?