We all know that a wool sweater will shrink in the wash, but does this mean that sheep shouldn’t get wet, either? What about hair sheep – can they be left outside in all types of weather? It might seem like a silly question at first, but there are some legitimate reasons to ensure your flock doesn’t get soaked.
Sheep will do just fine outdoors with light rain in warm weather. However, sheep should not be left without some sort of shelter in heavy rain or cold weather. Keep in mind the differences between hair sheep and wool sheep, and if your property has any natural shelters for your flock.
Heavy or prolonged rain, strongs winds or cold weather are weather conditions to consider offering shelter to your sheep. Newborn lambs or recently shorn sheep are particularly susceptible to hypothermia in such weather. Even warm, tropical rain comes with its own sheep-related problems, such as rain rot.
Sheep Are Hearty Animals
Remember that sheep are a domesticated animal, but there are still wild or mountain sheep roaming about in parts of the world.
These creatures don’t have sheds and barns to run to, and they have survived in the wild for ages. This is because many sheep, especially wool sheep have a natural water-resistant characteristic: lanolin.
Lanolin is a thick oil produced by a sheep’s skin and keeps their wool conditioned and somewhat water-resistant. If you’ve ever put your hands across the back of a sheep and squeezed the wool a bit, you’ll see your hands have a nice bit of natural oil on them.
This natural oil is so good it’s even used in cosmetics and loved by the beauty industry.
Hair sheep produce a small amount of lanolin, not nearly as much as wool sheep. This means that they are more susceptible to getting wet and cold in the rain than wool sheep are.
Note: Less lanolin is one of the reasons hair sheep are favored for meat, because less lanolin in the skin makes for less oily-tasting meat.
Sheep & Natural Shelters
Sheep do usually look for shelter when it is raining, but your property might have some natural shelter for your animals. Do you have a hedge of bushes or a solid fence that blocks the wind? A clump of trees where the sheep tend to huddle underneath when it rains?
These natural shelters might just be enough if you live in a warm area that doesn’t see harsh storms or significantly cold weather. Keep in mind that wind with rain can feel much colder than rain alone, especially for hair sheep that do not have a heavy wool coat (or lots of water-resistant lanolin) to keep them warm.
Sheep & Constructed Shelters
It might be a good idea to build a simple shelter to help keep the rain off of your sheep, especially if you have or intend to have lambs in the future. Depending on the size of your flock, a simple open shed with only three sides might suffice.
If you have only a few sheep, you might even be able to use a structure like a large dog-house to keep 4 or 5 sheep out of the rain.
If your sheep live outside, then a constructed shelter is merely a place for sheep to stand under during rain or storms. During sunny and dry periods, they will be out grazing in the pasture.
These types of shelters can have one or more open sides and no floor, using only natural grass or some gravel as the floor.
If you live in an area that is very cold or sees prolonged periods of rain, consider a more secure facility, such as a barn, for your sheep. Barns have 4 walls and a door, and provide not only shelter from rain, but also a barrier for wind and cold.
Barns are ideal for areas that see a cold winter, and for farmers who need to protect multiple newborn lambs.
Hypothermia in Sheep
Hypothermia is a risk to newborn sheep, wool sheep that have recently been sheared, or hair sheep because they do not have a heavy coat to keep them warm.
If the sheep becomes too wet and cold, the body temperature cand drop. If it becomes too low, the risks are serious and the sheep could even die.
However, here in Hawai’i, we don’t have to worry about the sheep getting wet and cold, because the weather is warm year-round. We do, however, have to consider sheep getting too wet for too long. This can lead to a nasty skin condition known as rain rot.
What is Rain Rot And How Does It Affect Sheep?
Rain rot has several names: rain scald, lumpy wool, or scientific terms: Dermatophilosis or Streptothricosis.
It is a skin condition affecting several types of farm animals, including horses, cows, goats and yes, sheep. It looks like scabs on the animal’s coat and can cause irritation.
Basically, rain rot is a bacteria (called dermatophilus congolensis) that normally lives on the skin and gets absorbed into the skin of the animal, if the skin has been wet for too long. Then, the dormant bacteria wakes up and becomes active.
This skin bacteria particularly loves moisture, high humidity and warm weather, making it the main culprit for rainy season concerns for sheep owners in Hawai’i.
In animals like horses, rain rot usually develops if the horse gets wet and then has a heavy horse blanket draped over their back, which traps in the moisture and allows the skin to absorb it.
Sheep are a bit different: wool sheep have lanolin to help protect their wool from rain. However, even that has its limits and wool sheep left outside in heavy rain without shelter for long periods of time can get their wool saturated and be susceptible to rain rot.
On the other hand, hair sheep don’t have the protection of lanolin and may get wet much easier than wool sheep. Mixed breeds of hair and wool mean that they can more easily get their coats bogged down, making them a perfect candidate for this bacteria to soak into their skin.
Rain rot is pretty easy to treat, once you’ve spotted it. Specialty shampoos, or even just an apple cider vinegar rinse or iodine treatment applied daily can help clear it up.
You will want to treat rain rot quickly, because it can spread to the rest of your flock as they brush up against each other.
Best Sheep For Rainy Tropical Areas
The best sheep for a climate like Hawai’i is hair sheep. To learn more about exactly which hair sheep to raise in tropical climates like Hawai’i, check out this article on the Best Sheep For Hawai’i and Other Tropical Areas.
But even hair sheep need to have some precautions to keep them from getting too wet for a long period of time. Best practice would be to provide natural shelters or build a shelter to keep any breed of sheep from getting rain rot or to keep newborn lambs warm and dry.