Why Do Shepherds Put Oil on Sheep?

Why Do Shepherds Put Oil On Sheep?

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Shepherds putting oil on sheep is a practice that started way back in the Bible days. They guide the sheep to green pastures and watering points, but the big question is: why do shepherds put oil on sheep?

Oil on sheep has benefits like repelling flies, controlling and minimizing the effects of scab disease, and preventing the tangling of sheep wool. Shepherds also pour oil on sheep, especially rams, to alleviate injuries resulting from head-butts.

 This post takes an in-depth look into why shepherds put oil on sheep.

Icelandic sheep grazing in open fields

Why Do Farmers Put Oil on Sheep? (Detailed Explanation)

Having given an overview of why shepherds put oil on sheep, let us dive deeper into the details.

Oil Repels Nose Flies and Other Insects

Summers are always exciting because of the sunny conditions, but they can be challenging for your sheep. This is because nose flies hover around sheep’s head, intending to lay eggs in their nose and ears.

The buzzing flies make the sheep panic and stressed as they try to fend them off. They could also ruin their milk and meat, and if not attended to, injuries and death could follow.

If the nose flies succeed in their mission to lay eggs on the nose and ears, the eggs could hatch into larvae. The larvae then scurry inside the delicate nasal passages of the sheep, leading to discomfort, inflammation, and potentially infection.

To get rid of the invaders, the sheep thrash around in the bushes and even smash its skull against tree trunks due to the agony. A sheep may attempt suicide in extreme situations to end the pain.

Even if the sheep survives, the infection from the fly larvae may cause blindness in the sheep. Shepherds must pay close attention because of the severity of the issues that nose flies create.

One way to deter irritating, bothersome nose flies is by putting oil on sheep. Shepherds combine oil and sulfur and apply them to the sheep heads to function as insect repellents and stop nose flies from laying eggs.

In Australia, scientists at the University of Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, have discovered that tea tree oil can solve all of our problems. Lice were eradicated after a quick dip of the sheep in a diluted formula of tea tree oil killing both flies and their larvae – maggots.

In my experience, flies are a petty annoyance as opposed to predatory wolves, straying sheep, treacherous terrain, or thieves.

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Minimize Severity of Head Injuries on Fighting Rams With Oil

Rams, like wild animals, fight to earn favor from the ewes. They square it out by head-butting each other viciously, and it can lead to severe injuries and death.

Due to this, traditional shepherds would frequently oil the rams’ heads and horns (more so in the autumn seasons), hoping they would slide upon collision.

Shepherds in the olden days used heavy cooking grease; those in the present day employ axle grease.

Keeping rutting rams separate is the greatest way to keep them from hurting one another.

Why Do Shepherds Put Oil on Sheep?

Oil Minimizes the Effects of Scab Disease

Apart from dealing with nose flies, sheep also risk exposure to scab disease in the summer. Scab is a contagious, parasitic condition caused by mites and is spread from one sheep to another during friendly rubbing or head-butting.

You can handle scab disease by applying a layer of medicinal oil on the animals’ heads. Alternatively, dip the sheep in organophosphate Diazinon or inject them with doramectin, moxidectin, or ivermectin.

These measures will contain the spread of scab disease and kill the causative agents (mites).

To Detect Potential Problems with The Sheep

Besides deterring flies and minimizing head injuries and the effects of scab diseases, shepherds put oil on sheep to identify abnormalities on their coats. The anomalies include clumps of wool or stains.

Oil Protects Sheep’s Wool

Another reason shepherds pour oil on sheep is to prevent the wool from getting tangled, matted, or dirty. The oil serves as a lubricant that keeps fibers from clamping together.

The oil also acts as a water repellent, thus keeping these docile creatures partly waterproof when out in the rain. It keeps the wool from dampening- a condition that can make your sheep uncomfortable.

To Accelerate the Healing of Cuts

Sheep normally remain outdoors, surrounded by rocks, thistles, sticks, barbed fences, and predators. It is not a soothing environment since even the lushest pastures are not without danger.

This environment could tear off wool or flesh from the sheep, causing wounds. Shepherds inspect their flock once or twice daily for injuries that need treatment.

If they come across cuts or wounds, they will pour oil (which acts as salves) to facilitate healing.

To Protect Sheep from Fly Strike

Fly strike is a disease in which flies lay eggs in wounds or dirty places on the sheep’s body. The eggs develop into larvae that consume the flesh of the livestock, leading to health issues and even death.

Keeping the sheep’s body clean and clear of wounds is one approach to avoid flystrike. Another alternative is to pour oil on the body to repel the flies.

That is why shepherds frequently massage oil into the fleece before releasing their flock into fly-infested areas.

How Much Oil Should Be Used on A Sheep?

A shepherd’s preference and the size of the sheep would determine the amount of oil to use. A layer of oil protects the sheep from nose flies and fly strike and keeps the wool clean.

However, excess oil could be hazardous to the sheep. It will make the wool greasy and matted, which attracts parasites and causes skin complications.

What Type of Oil Is Ideal for Applying on Sheep?

Often, shepherds pour oil on the sheep’s heads to keep them warm in the winter. Animal experts recommend a mild, non-greasy oil that will not block the pores.

As mentioned earlier, tea tree oil can be used as an effective measure. Ensure that the concentrated oil is diluted though!

Common Myths About Putting Oil On Sheep

As much as pouring oil on a sheep has benefits, there are some myths about the practice. One is that it protects a sheep from the summer heat.

Another misconception is that oil makes the wool grow thicker and faster and protects your flock from fly strike. These are false because pouring oil on a sheep’s head neither cools the sheep in hot weather nor stops fly strike.

Do Farmers Anoint Sheep with Oil?

Farmers occasionally anoint sheep with oil to deter nose flies. Flies are among the most dangerous enemies of your flock owing to the menace they cause.

The sheep, unlike other livestock, cannot shrug the flies away, whack them aside with their short tails, or kick them with their hooves.

It means these docile creatures can barely fight against their enemies, which are known to lay eggs in the nostrils.

The eggs develop into larvae, which move up towards the brain, driving the poor sheep insane. As stated earlier, the sheep will bash their heads against walls or rocks because of the discomfort and illnesses caused by the worms.

Failure to mitigate this menace will result in severe injuries and even death. Farmers, therefore, anoint sheep with oil to keep such irritating enemies away.

Final Thoughts

To wrap it up, shepherds put oil on their sheep to repel nose flies and minimize injuries from head-butting. It is also done to control scab disease, reduce the effects of fly strike, and allow easy detection of sheep coat anomalies. However, you should avoid applying excess oil because it can attract parasites and mat the wool.


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