Sheep in Farming

A land of sheep: Sheep farming in the UK

The UK is a major European producer of sheep products and a global exporter of wool and lamb. Within the industry, approximately 14 million sheep and lambs are slaughtered every year, and there are serious welfare concerns at all points of the sheep rearing process.

Of all farmed animals in the UK, sheep are the most likely to be extensively farmed, meaning the vast majority are kept outdoors, rather than housed in barns as with some cattle and pigs. This often seems a beneficial practice for the sheep, however, sheep are still stocked at very high densities even outdoors, and there is a small but increasing population being kept indoors for extended periods of time.

Extensive sheep farming is a common sight in the UK countryside.

Lambing concerns

Concerns about sheep welfare in the UK begin even before birth, with pregnant ewes and lambs alike facing suffering throughout pregnancy and early life.

In order to maximise profits, the breeding cycle of sheep has been heavily manipulated, often to the detriment of animal welfare. Ewes are commonly bred to produce more lambs than they naturally would, and forced to give birth in the winter, outside of the normal breeding cycle. In fact, 85% of domestic sheep pregnancies now result in multiple births, despite this being very rare in the wild. This aims to meet the demand for ‘spring lamb’, but often means that ewes suffer miscarriages, lameness, and infection, as well as other complications throughout pregnancy.

Both rams and ewes can be subjected to painful and invasive procedures as part of the breeding process; including hormone implants, artificial insemination, and electric shock probes.

Breeding techniques often mean that a ewe gives birth to two or more lambs, which can be detrimental to the health of mother and babies.

Once born, between 15% and 25% of UK lambs will die within the first few days of life, most often due to disease, exposure and malnutrition. Those who make it past the first days have very short lives ahead of them, as some lambs are slaughtered for meat as early as 4 weeks old; a fraction of the age at which they would naturally wean from their mothers.

Most lambs destined for slaughter lose their lives before they reach 6 months old, which of course is nowhere near their natural 12-year lifespan, and is around the time that they would wean from their mothers in the wild.  

Lifelong afflictions

Despite being naturally rather hardy animals, Britain’s sheep flocks suffer a number of ongoing health issues throughout their lives; often due to overcrowding or the simple nature of the UK’s climate and soils.

By acting quickly at the first sign of foot scald, the Goodheart team prevent discomfort for the sheep and ensure the condition does not worsen.

Sheep suffer two common causes of lameness: foot scald and foot rot. Foot scald is inflammation caused by bacteria from droppings and soil. If left untreated, this leads to foot rot, whereby soft tissues under the hoof start to die and rot away. The Government’s Farm Animal Welfare Committee estimates that some 97% of UK sheep flocks are affected by foot rot, meaning that almost all of Britain’s 22 million sheep may suffer from this at some point in their lives.

Foot scald is extremely common, and often cannot be completely avoided even by the most attentive animal husbandry. Here at Goodheart, our sheep are checked regularly and any individuals showing signs of foot scald are brought into the barn- with a barn buddy, of course- and treated in order to quickly eliminate the problem and prevent progression to foot rot.

By acting quickly at the first sign of foot scald, the Goodheart team prevent discomfort for the sheep and ensure the condition does not worsen.

Pneumonia is another infection which frequently affects sheep and is often a cause of illness and loss of condition. Sheep kept on land which is prone to waterlog are usually more susceptible to pneumonia, as are flocks kept in very high densities, as this means infection is easily spread between sheep.


One of the most distressing threats faced by sheep is that of fly strike; when blowflies lay their eggs in the dirty fleece of densely-grazed sheep. Upon hatching, maggots begin to feed on the sheep’s skin, leaving open wounds to attract further infestation. This condition can be fatal within hours and leads to a particularly painful death.

Shearing time

Modern sheep which are bred to have large, fast-growing fleeces must, of course, be shorn. Here at Goodheart, our sheep are no exception and are shorn seasonally. When it comes time for shearing, we make sure that the contracted experts are paid per hour and not per sheep, meaning they can take their time and ensure the safety and comfort of every one of our sheep. This is all carried out under the watchful eye of our Sanctuary Manager and the rest of the Animal Care Team who make sure the sheep are not distressed in the process.

Sheep whose fleeces become overgrown are at risk from pneumonia and other conditions arising from dirty, wet fleeces.

In the wool industry, however, corners are often cut to increase profits, and shearers work as fast as they can to shear as many sheep as possible. This often results in rough handling which causes distress, bruising, cuts, and sometimes more severe injuries. 

Recently, a number of exposés have uncovered shocking cruelty during shearing, including intentionally inflicting pain on sheep by kicking and punching. This has led to increased pressure on governing bodies to take action against such mistreatment within the industry.

The slaughter of sheep

Every year in the UK, around 1 million mature sheep are killed without first being stunned, in accordance with religious methods of slaughter. In traditional British cuisine, there is little demand for mutton (the flesh of fully-grown sheep), which means most older sheep in the UK are slaughtered in the religious fashion or exported to suffer the same fate.

Religious slaughter is sometimes a contentious issue, but every year the electrical stunning of sheep before conventional slaughter is estimated to fail on around 4 million individuals. Therefore, it can be argued that for those 4 million sheep, there is little difference in suffering between religious methods of slaughter and more widely-used practices.

Every year in the UK, hundreds of thousands of terrified sheep are packed onto lorries for long journeys across Europe.

Last year, we explored issues surrounding the live export of dairy calves, but it is sheep which are most frequently exported. Each year, around 390,000 sheep are exported live from the UK, and their suffering has been well documented.

Sheep are forced to endure extremely cramped conditions for up to 28 hours at a time. EU rules dictate that after 14 hours, sheep must receive water and rest (on the lorry), then after another 14 hours must be unloaded for . However, the rules are often found to be ignored, and a combination of hot weather, overcrowding and poor ventilation means many sheep die in lorries on the continent due to lack of water or exhaustion.

Our sheep

Here at Goodheart, we are glad to provide a safe forever home to over 100 sheep. Our sheep will never have to face mistreatment, export, or slaughter, and have everything they need to live happy lives in 92 peaceful acres. We hope that by sharing information about the suffering of farm animals, we can encourage others to think about where their food comes from, and to reduce their consumption of animal goods. If we all make more compassionate choices,the demand for animal products inevitably goes down, and fewer individuals are subjected to lives of cruelty.

By supporting Goodheart you help to ensure the safe future of all of our rescued animals, and enable us to continue to work towards a future where farmed animals are treated with the kindness they deserve. To find out more about how you can support our work, take a look at all the ways you can show your Goodheartedness here.