Can Sheep Swim if They Need To?

For some of us, we don’t have to worry about our animals going for a dip anytime soon. If there aren’t any water features nearby or we keep them properly contained and well away from them, there is no danger.

a herd of Icelandic sheep
a herd of Icelandic sheep

But for others, there is a pond, river, or both on our property that our animals can access. Drowning is a concern, obviously, but less of one if our animals know how to swim.

How about sheep? Can sheep swim if they need to?

Yes, sheep can swim if they need to, but they aren’t very good at it. Sheep are easily weighed down by their wool when it gets soaked, and they have a hard time struggling against any current.

In the wild, sheep are extremely hesitant to swim, and will usually only do so when they have no other choice.

If your sheep have access to a larger body of water, you don’t necessarily have to worry about them getting in unless they are forced to, but you cannot count on their swimming skills to save them either should they do so.

There’re other interesting facts about sheep that you need to know, but their swimming skills, or lack thereof, are surprising to say the least.

Can Sheep Really Not Swim Well?

Sadly, no they cannot. It’s not that sheep don’t have the strength or endurance to keep up swimming; it’s just that they have a lot going against them in the water.

For starters, most domestic sheep do not have serious endurance, and furthermore domestic sheep have incredibly thick, long coats of wool if they haven’t been sheared recently.

When this wool gets soaked, it becomes extremely heavy, and it also generates a lot of drag if there is a current, causing other problems besides.

This means that sheep tire very quickly in the water and are vulnerable to being swept away if it is moving water.

Do Sheep Enjoy Swimming?

No, except rare individual sheep that seems to enjoy getting wet. Sheep don’t like being forced into any water that they cannot safely wade into. Sheep that are forced to enter water will become noticeably stressed most of the time.

For this reason, you should not try to force your sheep into any water unless you have no other choice.

Do Sheep Have to Learn How to Swim?

No. Sheep, like the vast majority of mammals, are born knowing how to swim instinctively. This doesn’t mean they want to get any practice, and it doesn’t mean they are good at it, though!

Why Would a Sheep Get in the Water?

Sheep generally only get in the water when they are forced to. What might force a sheep to get into the water?

Depending on where they live, sheep might have to cross a stream or narrow river to get to the other side to find food or because the leader of the flock is taking them in that direction.

Under these circumstances, sheep will prefer to use a known crossing that they can walk across, or at least cross where they can intermittently touch the bottom instead of swimming the whole way.

Another instance that will drive sheep into the water if they’re cornered is the approach of a predator.

In a panicked attempt to get away, sheep might decide to take their chances by swimming for it.

Sheep that are separated from the flock and desperate to rejoin them might also swim for it if they can see the flock but have no other way to get to them.

Generally speaking, aside from a usual and known crossing on certain properties, sheep will only go into the water in desperation.

How Do Sheep Swim, Exactly?

Sheep swim like most other four-legged mammals, in a fashion that resembles a waterborne trot or what we would call a doggy paddle.

They aren’t very fast, or graceful, but for short distances it is adequate to get sheep or they need to go while keeping their head above water.

Even though they aren’t the most powerful or impressive swimmers, sheep burn a lot of energy swimming this way because they usually have to overcome a lot of resistance from their wet wool.

So even this clumsy form of swimming will tire sheep out rapidly.

Can Sheep Float?

Somewhat. The same wool that gets heavy when inundated with water and weighs sheep down does provide a certain amount of buoyancy, but not enough to overcome the other problems it presents.

While sheep can float to a degree, it is certainly not enough to prevent drowning when they get in trouble.

To be perfectly clear: do not count on your sheep being able to float to save their lives!

Do Some Sheep Breeds Swim Better than Others?

Generally speaking, sheep are not great swimmers even compared to other four-legged mammals in the animal kingdom.

That’s said, certain breeds do show better success at swimming over short distances than others.

Several domestic breeds of sheep found in Iceland are known for surprisingly good performance as swimmers since they historically needed to swim across streams, rivers and swollen fjords to find food.

Likewise, various descendants from wild coastal breeds of sheep in the United Kingdom are pretty strong swimmers, as they had to swim between various small island chains in search of grazing opportunities.

But in the end, there’s no breed of sheep out there that will truly impress as semi-aquatic critters!

Is it Safe for Your Sheep to Swim?

Generally not. As I’ve alluded to several times already throughout this article sheep are not great swimmers and they are prone to tiring out and getting in trouble when in the water.

Even if there is a shallow, narrow crossing on your property that sheep use regularly, you should take care to keep it inspected especially after hard rains.

Also, I highly recommend you avoid trying to get your sheep to swim recreationally in any body of water, natural or otherwise.

As a rule, they don’t like it, and you’ll only be setting the stage for them to be at real risk of drowning.

Warning: Sheep are Very Vulnerable to Drowning

On that note, in any but the shallowest, calmest conditions sheep are very vulnerable to drowning when forced to swim.

I told you how dangerous this is because their wool gets way down with water, increasing the exertion of sheep when swimming and also greatly increasing the drag against them in calm water or when in a current.

This is nothing to be taken lightly, and especially when sheep are carrying a long, full coat of wool they will be at their most vulnerable.

It also causes issues if they are forced out of the water on a steep bank because they will weigh even more on land without the buoyancy of the surrounding water to help offset the increased weight.

It isn’t out of the question that a sheep might get out of the water on the far side in a steep bank and be unable to move up the bank under the increased load.

Lastly, that long, fuzzy wool is highly vulnerable to snagging on natural or man-made obstacles under the water.

If this holds the sheep in place while in deep water, it is all but certain that they will quickly tire and drown.

Can Sheep Swim When it is Cold?

They can, but it’s not recommended if it can be avoided. For one thing, cold water will rapidly strip body heat away from sheep. Cold plus the usual exertion of swimming will tire them out even faster than normal.

However, once they make it to the other side they will probably be okay because wool is such an amazing insulator. It can even keep you, and the sheep that grow it, warm when it is soaking wet.

As usual, your sheep shouldn’t be swimming if it can be avoided, and particularly during cold weather.

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