Jackie Lee, 2019 DVM Candidate, The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine
We have all heard the stories of shepherds who have been injured or even killed by rams unexpectedly. The best way to avoid these situations is to prevent them. Knowing normal ram behavior, what promotes ram aggression and methods to mitigate aggression will facilitate producer safety. As a brief aside, there were very few scientific and text resources that impart advice on ram safety and incident prevention, therefore much of this article is attributed to the personal experiences and opinions of myself as well as my colleagues and mentors.
Rams have many typical behaviors that most producers are familiar with and expect to observe on a regular basis. Of these behaviors, sexual behavior is the most important to the breeding program and future of the flock. Aggressive behaviors are associated with normal sexual behavior and highest during the breeding season. Sexual behaviors that can translate to aggressive behaviors towards humans include pawing at the ground, nibbling, head butting, charging, and gargling vocalizations. Normal sexual behaviors are variable between rams. Some rams are more aggressive than others whereas some are more docile. The extent of sexual behaviors is determined by genetics but also by how the ram was raised. Regardless of an individual ram’s behavior, it is important to remember that all rams are aggressive or have the potential to be aggressive, even if they appear “friendly”.
Knowing ram behavior is the first step to prevention which is key to reducing the risk of an incident occurring. For example, it is not recommended to pet rams on the head because it promotes head butting. Another recommendation is to avoid hand-rearing rams whenever possible. Orphaned ram lambs should be transferred to another ewe if it is an option. It is important for ram lambs to develop social skills amongst the flock and maintain a workable flight zone distance with the shepherd. Hand-reared ram lambs may seem more docile and friendlier, but in fact they are the most dangerous since they have no fear of the shepherd. Evaluating the behavior of ram lambs at a young age may also be helpful in preventing ram aggression. Even rams that are not hand-reared, but still friendly as lambs are more likely to be aggressive as adults. It may be worthwhile to consider the genetics of that ram lamb and if they are worth keeping for breeding stock.
If early preventative practices fail and the ram becomes a known aggressor, the best recommendation is removal of the ram. Ideally, the ram would be sent to slaughter rather than sold to another producer who then would be assuming the potential risk of injury. This may seem like a drastic measure, but the safety of a human life is worth more than any ram. Not to mention any liability that you could be assuming if the ram injured someone else. The hesitation by producers behind this recommendation is if the ram is genetically valuable. If the aggressive ram must be absolutely kept, it becomes even more necessary to practice strict safety practices when around the ram. However, never fail to acknowledge the inherent increased risk of owning a dangerous ram. Finally, it is important to remember to never trust a ram (or any livestock animal for that matter). Never turn your back on a ram and always know where the ram is when you are working around them. Minimize the time that you are around any ram especially with handling and restraint. And if this was not already obvious, never allow children in a pen with a ram.
The recommendations on what actions to take during an attack by a ram are highly variable. Essentially there are no overarching rules about how to handle these situations since every incident will vary. Some people in the industry recommend making loud sounds and chasing the ram if they feel as though the ram is displaying aggressive behaviors. My opinion is to always watch that ram very carefully and leave the pen as quickly as possible if your observation detects a threat. Always know your quickest escape route, whether it’s a quick hop over the fence or through a gate. This is why I would recommend keeping feeders and waterers just inside the enclosure so that the producer can minimize their time spent in the pen with a ram. If an attack does occur, of course seek medical attention as soon as possible. However, when you are at the hospital waiting to been seen, you may want to use that time to reconsider the future of that ram in your operation.
Overall, remember that all rams have the potential to be dangerous. Knowing the behavior of the ram and warning signs of ram aggression will help prevent an incident. However, if a ram is aggressive, strongly consider if his genetics are good enough to outweigh the risks. Stay safe and best wishes for a successful breeding season!