Caring for sheep and goats

Published 8 April 2013

You and any staff working with animals must read, understand and have access to at least one of the following:

Welfare codes aren’t law, but if you don’t follow them it can be used as evidence in court if you’re prosecuted for causing unnecessary suffering to livestock.

You also need to take care of your livestock’s welfare off the farm and in extreme weather. You should read the guidance on:

1. Qualifying for the Basic Payment Scheme and cross-compliance

If you’re involved in the Basic Payment Scheme, you need to follow cross-compliance restrictions.

To meet cross-compliance welfare standards for sheep and goats you need to follow the current Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs):

  • SMR 4 - food and feed law (formerly SMR 11)
  • SMR 5 - restrictions on the use of substances having hormonal or thyrostatic action and beta-agonists in farm animals (formerly SMR 10)
  • SMR 13 - animal welfare (formerly SMR 18)

The guide to cross compliance explains what you need to do to follow each SMR.

2. Stockmanship and managing sheep and goats

You need to have stock-keeping skills for sheep and goats, either through qualifications or experience.

You should inspect livestock frequently enough to avoid unnecessary suffering - usually this is at least once a day. You should check more often during:

You or your stock-keeper should be competent in a range of animal health and welfare skills such as:

  • handling skills
  • ear tagging
  • preventing and treating basic or common causes of lameness
  • preventing and treating internal and external parasites
  • administering medicines
  • caring for sick and injured animals
  • castration

2.1 Shearing goats and sheep

Shearers should be trained, competent and experienced, or supervised by someone who is. Don’t cut the skin, and treat any cuts immediately.

Goats are affected by changes in temperature and (unless they’re housed) you should only shear goats when the weather is suitable (eg warm and dry).

Combing is better than shearing during bad weather. If weather turns bad after shearing and no housing is available you should provide coats instead.

You should remove the fleece from all mature sheep at least once a year. You shouldn’t shear in winter, unless your sheep are housed.

You should only turn winter-shorn sheep out to grass when it turns warmer in the spring and their fleece has regrown to at least 1.5cm. You should offer extra shelter - such as straw bales - if shelter isn’t available naturally.

You should:

  • have suitable handling pens to aid routine management and treatment
  • handle or restrain sheep by placing one arm under the neck (holding the neck wool if needed) and the other around the rear

Don’t lift or drag sheep by the fleece, tail, ears, horns or legs.

2.2 Marking sheep

Aerosols or paints used for marking sheep need to be non-toxic.

Only trained staff using proper equipment that’s in good working order can carry out permanent marking, such as tattooing or tagging.

You should avoid marking during the fly season. If you can’t then reduce the threat of fly strike (such as by using pour-on chemicals after sheep have been freshly shorn).

If you’re permanently marking horned breeds of sheep you should use horn branding.

2.3 Tethering sheep

You should make sure that restraint devices such as raddles, harnesses, tethers and yokes are properly fitted and adjusted to avoid causing injury or discomfort. These shouldn’t be used for longer than needed and you must check on animals regularly.

You shouldn’t tether by the horns.

2.4 Tethering goats

You must check tethered goats regularly and take care to avoid distress or injury caused by:

  • exposure to bad weather - offer shelter
  • hunger or thirst - provide food and water
  • entanglement
  • being worried by dogs or children

Collars need to be light but tough and attached to a strong chain at least 3m long and with at least 2 swivels.

You must not tether kids (goats younger than 6 months).

3. Looking after health and welfare

You or your herder should produce a written health and welfare plan, using advice from vets and other health advisers. You should review and update the plan at least once a year.

Your plan should include records to assess the basic output of the flock, including:

  • vaccination policy and timing
  • control of external and internal parasites
  • foot care

You should also include pasture management in your disease control plans to avoid reliance on drugs for internal parasites and footrot.

3.1 Introducing new sheep

You should segregate any new sheep (including rams) that you introduce to a new flock. You should segregate them for at least 4 weeks and inspect and treat as necessary (such as for sheep scab or footrot).

You should segregate newly introduced ewes for 4 weeks before lambing and have them lambed separately, preferably after the main flock. This helps avoid introducing infectious abortion agents.

You should check ewes for fitness before introducing a ram to a flock at tupping time. You should cull any sub-standard ewes, along with any that suffered reproductive problems in previous seasons.

This is especially important for animals expected to live under harsh conditions. You should inspect rams for their suitability for breeding.

3.2 Lameness

You should regularly inspect the feet of sheep. You may need to treat infected feet, carry out paring or foot bathing, or vaccination. You should get advice from a vet if treatments don’t work.

You need to call a vet immediately if lame sheep don’t respond to any treatment you apply.

You mustn’t transport any sheep off-farm that can’t:

  • stand up unaided
  • bear their weight on all 4 legs when standing or walking

You shouldn’t take to market (or anywhere else) any animal that can bear its weight on all 4 feet but is slightly lame and movement is likely to make the injury worse (even if only slightly).

If a lame animal doesn’t respond to the vet’s treatment, you should cull it rather than leave it to suffer. If you can’t transport lame animals without causing them more pain, you should slaughter them on the farm.

3.3 Treating parasites

You should protect against external parasites (eg ticks, lice or others that cause scabs or fly strikes) with a chemical agent. If a sheep is infected you should treat it immediately.

You should use grazing management or anthelmintic treatment (drugs that expel parasites) as needed.

3.4 Dosing and vaccination equipment

You must make sure that all the equipment you use for dosing, vaccinating and treating sheep or goats is in good working order.

You should regularly clean and sterilise any equipment you use for injections, to avoid infections and abscesses. The size of a dosing-gun nozzle should be suitable for the animal’s age.

3.5 Sick and injured animals

When you see any animal that appears to be ill or injured you must:

  • immediately care for it appropriately (eg give it suitable medicines)
  • call a vet as soon as possible if the animal does not respond to care

You can’t transport a sick or injured animal unless:

  • it’s fit for the journey
  • you’ve made plans to take care of it on the journey and at arrival

If you need to kill a sick animal on your farm you can only use:

  • a free bullet - you should kill the animal with a single shot to the head
  • stunning with a captive bolt, concussion stunner or electrical stunner, after which you must bleed or pith it immediately

The person carrying out stunning, bleeding or pithing must be a licensed slaughterman, unless you’re the owner and slaughtering the animal for your own consumption.

3.6 Fallen stock

You must dispose of fallen stock (including stillborn lambs and foetuses) by:

  • sending to a knacker’s yard, hunt kennel or similar premises
  • incineration in approved premises
  • rendering
  • burial or burning - do this only in exceptional circumstances (and do it so that carnivorous animals, including dogs, can’t get to the carcass), such as in remote areas or after a natural disaster

3.7 Record keeping

You must record the:

  • number of mortalities found on each inspection
  • date you treated any animals
  • name and address of the supplier where you bought any medicines you used in treatments
  • identity and quantity of medicines used
  • animal or group of animals you treated

You need to keep these records for at least 3 years. You must make these  records available to any authorised person from Defra who asks for them.

4. Mutilating livestock

4.1 Mutilating sheep

You mustn’t carry out the following as they’re illegal:

  • penis amputation and other penile operations
  • tooth grinding
  • freeze dagging
  • electro-immobilisation

You should avoid tail docking and only do it when other options have failed to deal with welfare problems linked to dirty tails and fly strike. This must be done by a competent person and enough tail must be left to cover the sheep’s anus or vulva. You can only dock a tail with a rubber ring during the first week of life.

You should only castrate when lambs will be kept beyond sexual maturity and it’s needed to avoid welfare problems related to managing males. Because of the risk of mis-mothering - which can lead to starvation - you shouldn’t castrate until the bond between ewe and lamb is properly established.

Castration should only be performed by a trained and competent person. You can only castrate without an anaesthetic by using a rubber ring (or other device) to restrict the flow of blood to the scrotum during the first week of life. Once a lamb reaches 3 months, castration must be carried out under anaesthetic by a vet.

If both tail docking and castration are needed you should carry out both operations at the same time to reduce distress and the risk of mis-mothering.

4.2 Mutilating goats

Castration must be carried out by a trained, competent person.

Disbudding and dehorning can only be carried out by a vet - ideally at 2 to 3 days old, and no later than 10 days. You should carry out regular foot trimming when needed.

5. Feeding and watering

You need to feed livestock a balanced diet. Sheep and goats need to have access to enough fresh, clean water at all times. If that’s impossible, you should provide water at least twice a day.

All animals need to have access to feed at least once a day, except when a vet states otherwise.

You need to keep contamination of food and water and the harmful effects of competition between animals at a minimum. Remove any stale or contaminated feed immediately.

5.1 Feeding sheep

You need to gradually introduce high intakes of cereal-based diets. You should also feed roughage or a suitable high-fibre concentrate.

Some substances (particularly copper) are harmful to sheep. Avoid compound feeds or mineral preparations that have been prepared for other species, unless they’re specifically suitable for sheep.

You should have enough supplies of feed and water for emergencies, such as severe winter storms or summer drought.

In trough systems you should use mineral mixtures specifically designed to avoid urinary problems in male sheep.

5.2 Sheep dentition and culling

You should consider the state of the flock’s dentition (teeth development) when culling. You should cull sheep with poor teeth. If you do keep the sheep, you should use feed they can eat easily and you should monitor their body condition.

5.3 Feeding goats

Goats need a large amount of bulky feed. They prefer coarse forages and tree branches.

Suitable foods for housed goats include:

  • pea and bean haulm
  • clover
  • lucerne and meadow hay
  • silage
  • coarse, flaky or pelleted concentrated food

Don’t overfeed certain food (eg concentrates) as this can lead to problems such as bloat, acidosis, laminitis and obesity.

5.4 Sheep and goat trough space

Prevent individual sheep from gorging by making sure that there’s plenty of trough space available to the flock. When feeding all your sheep at once, the minimum trough space is around:

  • 45cm for lowland ewes
  • 30cm for smaller hill ewes

However, if sheep have constant access to a supply of hay and silage, you can reduce trough space to 10 to 12cm per ewe, depending on their size.

You need to make sure that there is enough trough space or feeding points for goats, and that neither lambs nor lambs can get into troughs and drown.

5.5 Use safe feed

You must not place feed that could harm human or animal health on the market.

You must not:

  • feed animals any substance, food or liquid that can cause them unnecessary suffering or injury
  • use feed that makes the animals who eat it unable to produce food that’s safe for humans to eat

You must:

  • arrange for unsafe feed to be withdrawn from the market if you believe that you supplied it - contact your local authority and the Food Standards Agency if this happens
  • destroy unsafe feed - unless an advising authority (such as a vet) has told you not to
  • tell anyone who uses your feed why you’re withdrawing it

See the guide to food safety and farmed animals for more information on how to follow safe feed laws.

6. Housing, shelter and environment

6.1 Fencing

You need to maintain fences and hedges to prevent injuries to your animals and to minimise the risk of entanglement.

You must:

  • check any mesh fencing at least once a day to free any trapped animals
  • set up any electric fences so that they only cause momentary discomfort

You shouldn’t use electric mesh fencing when you have horned sheep, horned goats, or young goats.

As goats tend to jump and clamber, fencing should be strong and high enough (at least 1.2 metres) to prevent them from escaping. It should be designed to avoid the risk of injury.

6.2 Housing

Housing livestock can improve goat and sheep welfare, but there are health risks - see the guide to sheep and goat health.

Housed sheep and goats should also have access to a yard or pasture.

When designing housing you should make sure there’s enough:

  • ventilation, without causing draughts at animal level
  • trough space
  • lying areas

Housed animals must have access at all times to a lying area which is clean and dry with suitable bedding, such as straw. Make sure there’s enough fresh bedding, particularly during lambing or kidding.

Flooring should be designed to avoid any discomfort or injury. Solid floors should be well drained.

Category of sheep Space (square metres)
Lowland ewes - 60-90kg live weight 1.2-1.4 floor space per ewe during pregnancy
Lowland ewes after lambing, with lambs at foot up to 6-weeks-old 2.0-2.2 floor space per ewe and lambs
Hill ewes - 45-65kg live weight 1.0-1.2 floor space per ewe during pregnancy
Hill ewes after lambing, with lambs at foot up to 6-weeks-old 1.8-2.0 floor space per ewe and lambs
Lambs up to 12-weeks-old 0.5-0.6 floor space per lamb
Lambs and sheep 12-weeks to 12-months-old 0.75-0.9 floor space per lamb or sheep
Rams 1.5-2.0 per ram

You can reduce space allowances by 10% for winter-shorn sheep.

You shouldn’t keep pregnant ewes in groups of more than 50 wherever possible.

6.4 Animals kept outdoors

You should offer some form of suitable shelter for any animals not kept in buildings.

6.5 Lighting

Housed livestock should experience periods of light and darkness that are similar to living outside. When there isn’t enough natural light you need to have controlled artificial light that creates contrasting dark periods.

You should also have fixed or portable lighting always available so that you can inspect your animals at any time.

6.6 Good practice for sheep

Lameness can be a major welfare problem for sheep. Levels of lameness are likely to increase when sheep are densely stocked, particularly if ground conditions are damp.

See the National Animal Disease Information Service for how to spot and reduce lameness in sheep.

7. Looking after equipment

You need to clean all equipment regularly and inspect it daily. You need to fix any problems quickly and maintain equipment essential to the welfare of your livestock.

8. Breeding and pregnancy

Make sure that pregnant and nursing females get enough food and water to keep their body condition while also developing lambs or kids.

You should handle heavily pregnant females carefully to avoid distress or injury that could cause premature lambing or kidding. But if you need to carry out a treatment for welfare reasons - such as for lameness - give this as soon as possible and don’t leave it until after lambing or kidding.

You need to make sure you have enough lambing or kidding pens, of big enough size, that are dry and well-drained. Each should have a hay rack, feed trough and water bucket. If lambing or kidding takes place outdoors you should offer some form of suitable shelter and windbreaks.

You should have a heat source (such as a warmer box) available to revive weak lambs or kids, particularly when artificial rearing. But avoid overheating.

Remove any dead lambs or kids from pens without delay. You must also remove any afterbirth as you would with other fallen stock.

You must make sure that every newly born lamb receives colostrum from its dam, or from another source, as soon as possible and within 3 hours of birth.

You must always have supplies of colostrum available for use in emergencies, such as when a ewe lambs with poor milk supplies.

8.1 Prolapses

You should treat any ewe with a prolapse immediately and get advice from a vet as needed.

8.2 Embryotomy

You should only carry out embryotomy (the dissection and removal of a foetus which cannot be delivered naturally) on dead lambs only. You should never use this method to remove a live lamb.

8.3 Feeding pregnant sheep

Handle heavily pregnant ewes carefully. You should see the Eblex guide to feeding ewes throughout a lifetime, including pregnancy and lactation.

8.4 Pregnant goats

Kidding pens should be within sight and sound of other goats. A newly born kid should receive colostrum from its dam - or another source - as soon as possible (and no more than 6 hours after birth).

9. Protect animals from hazards and emergencies

You must protect your animals from any potential hazards, like:

  • on-farm debris - eg wire or plastic
  • open drains
  • predators - including dogs
  • extreme weather - heat waves, flooding or being buried by snow

You should make plans for dealing with emergencies like fire or flood for housed livestock. Include details of how you’ll move your animals off site in an emergency and make sure your staff have read the plan.

You should make sure that staff can get into all buildings as quickly as possible in case of an emergency.

9.1 Keeping surfaces safe

You should keep all surfaces that your animals can access (like walls and floors) free from anything that could cause injury or death, like:

  • sharp edges or protruding (sticking out) parts
  • electrical wires
  • toxic paint or wood preservative -  make sure that any second-hand materials don’t have any lead-based paint

9.2 Extreme weather

You should move stock to a more suitable area if there’s no natural or artificial shelter to protect grazing stock from extreme weather conditions.

10. Milk sheep flocks

Milk sheep flocks need more intensive husbandry and care to keep their health and welfare. You should make sure they’re fed enough during pregnancy and lactation.

You or your shepherds must be aware of specific milk sheep problems. In particular some milk sheep breeds are vulnerable to foot problems.

As well as looking after tracks and roadways you should carry out routine treatments for foot problems. You should try to prevent footrot during the drying off period eg keeping areas clean and any bedding dry.

Before and after milking you should try to reduce the spread of diseases of the mammary gland eg through suitable cleaning of the susceptible area of each animal.

10.1 Milking parlours and equipment

You need to design and maintain milking parlours, pens, ramps and milking equipment to prevent injury or distress to livestock.

You must check the equipment daily to make sure that it’s working and make sure that milking machines have the correct:

  • vacuum levels
  • pulsation rates
  • ratios

You should carry out milking daily - and more often if necessary - to make sure that your sheep or goats aren’t left with unrelieved, distended (swollen) udders.

You need to train lambs on how to use any automatic feeding equipment properly.

11. Welfare during transport, at market and at shows

When moving animals, you must transport animals in a way that won’t cause them injury or unnecessary suffering.

11.1 Fitness for travel

It’s illegal to transport an animal that’s considered unfit for travel.

Unfit times include:

  • shorn sheep during cold weather - particularly November to March
  • very young animals - eg lambs aged less than one week - unless the journey is shorter than 100km (62 miles)
  • new-borns where the navel has not completely healed
  • heavily pregnant females when more than 90% of the expected gestation period has passed
  • females who have given birth during the previous seven days
  • sick or injured animals where moving them would cause more suffering - unless instructed by a vet

12. Animal welfare inspections

Inspectors from the Animal and Plant Health Agency and your local authority can visit your farm. They’ll normally give notice but may not if they’ve had a complaint about how you’re treating them.

Find out more at the guide to farm inspections.

They’ll check how you’re caring for your animals and if you’re following cross-compliance restrictions. You must allow inspectors to:

  • see all your animals in their normal rearing environment
  • see a demonstration of how your alarm system (to alert you if automated ventilation and other systems fail) and its back-up generators work
  • examine specific animals on request
  • take any samples, carcasses or photographs they need
  • inspect veterinary medicine records and mortality records
  • check any other records that will show you’re meeting requirements (like animal feed records)
  • ask if there’s been a known or suspected outbreak of a notifiable disease on your premises during the year