If you are new to sheep raising, you may look at your pastures in panic. Will that unknown weed growing in the corner be safe for your sheep to eat? What if they get out of their pen and go into your vegetable garden? What if they eat your daylilies or poisonous flowers?
The easiest way to prevent accidental poisoning of your sheep is, of course, to make sure you build a fence that is strong and secure enough to hold them. Providing your animal with a balanced, stable diet with plenty of hay, grain and mineral supplements can also help. That way, they won’t be tempted to eat things that could potentially be poisonous.
In addition, it is a good idea to become familiar with the list of plants that are toxic to sheep. Ready for some great news? There isn’t much that sheep can’t eat – so the list is short!
Here’s what you need to know about the plants that are toxic to sheep.
Poisonous Plants for Sheep
While you have gone to great lengths to ensure that your pasture is planted in sheep-friendly vegetation, the reality is that the boundaries between grazing areas and landscaped areas are often blurred. It is not uncommon for sheep to encounter certain plants in the pasture that they really shouldn’t be eating.
Be proactive and remove these plants from areas where your sheep will graze.
Iris are usually grown for ornamental purposes – you are unlikely to find wild iris growing in your pastures. However, you should remove these plants if they are growing along fence lines, as your sheep will happily gnaw on them. They can cause digestive disturbances when consumed in large quantities by sheep.
In small amounts, holly may not cause serious problems. However, when consumed in large amounts, holly berries, in particular, can cause diarrhea, vomiting and confusion.
Rhubarb leaves are poisonous to almost all animals (including humans, believe it or not). So we eat the stalks of this plant instead. The leaves can cause symptoms such as drooling, convulsions and even death of the sheep.
4. Cruciferous Vegetables
While sheep can handle a bite of broccoli here and there, be careful not to feed too many cruciferous vegetables (including things like mustard). In excess, these vegetables can cause photosensitization, tremor, goiter, vomiting, and more.
Although butterflies love it, it is not a good plant if you have sheep. Eating too much can lead to symptoms such as drooling, loss of appetite, difficulty breathing, convulsions and unfortunately death.
6. St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort isn’t just dangerous to sheep when it is ingested. It can also cause skin irritations such as blisters, sores and peeling.
When ingested, it can take some time for symptoms to appear – sometimes 3 weeks! As a result it is a difficult type of poison to diagnose.
Despite the name, eating too much lamb can be especially dangerous to pregnant sheep, as the plant can cause miscarriage.
Nightshades are poisonous to everyone – sheep included. An actual tomato or pepper won’t hurt your lamb if it’s over ripe (though they probably won’t eat it). However, plant parts need to be kept away – which applies equally to tomato plants, peppers, potatoes and eggplants.
Some shrubs are often grown around the home, prized for their green, needle-like growth. However, if you have sheep, be careful growing yeast, as it will kill your sheep quickly if they bite that much. Sheep poisoned by yew rarely recover.
The tender shoots from oak trees, both acorns and young ones, can cause severe poisoning if consumed in large quantities. Symptoms include anorexia, excessive thirst and gastroenteritis.
11. Bracken Fern
This plant is poisonous to sheep, whether alive or dead. It can cause symptoms such as fever, restlessness and mucous discharge in sheep.
12. Morning Glory
Morning glory is a beautiful vine plant that you can grow in your garden. Skip it if you have sheep – almost every kind of livestock animal, including hogs and sheep, is vulnerable to poisoning from hallucinogenic seeds.
13. English Ivy
English ivy is toxic to almost all types of animals, including sheep. It can cause extreme thirst, diarrhea, and rapid breathing. Severe poisoning can cause your animal to fall into a coma.
14. Mountain Laurelly
Mountain laurel, along with the closely related azaleas and rhododendrons, is toxic to sheep. Consuming large amounts of these plants can lead to death, while small amounts can cause salivation, anorexia, lethargy and incontinence.
15. Wild Cherry
Ask any vet, and he or she will tell you that wild cherries are one of the most common causes of livestock poisoning. Usually, sheep are exposed when leaves and limbs fly off a tree and fall on the pasture. While the wood itself is not poisonous, the leaves are, as they produce cyanide.
Toxicity from this plant is difficult to reverse. In fact, in most cases, the poisoning will happen so quickly that you won’t even have a chance to react. Your animal may suffer from convulsions, wobble a bit, and eventually fall and die.
Symptoms of Plant Poisoning
While being proactive by not planting plants that are toxic to sheep and getting rid of potential toxins is the best bet for keeping your sheep safe, the reality is that accidents do happen. You could miss a plant, misidentify it, or worse, have your sheep climb up on you and nibble on things they shouldn’t.
If you know your sheep have eaten things they shouldn’t, keep an eye out for the following symptoms. They can indicate that veterinary care is necessary and include:
- loss of appetite
- isolation from the rest of the herd
- shortness of breath
- drinking excessive amounts of water
- apathy or fatigue
- diarrhea (diarrhea)
If you notice one or more of these symptoms and know your sheep have eaten something they shouldn’t, contact your vet as soon as possible.
Other Things That Are Poisonous to Sheep
Other things can be toxic to sheep as well, and should be kept away. It’s not just the plants that you need to watch!
Copper is one of the most well-documented toxins for sheep. Sheep are sensitive to copper because their liver stores the mineral more easily than other animals. Although essential for sheep, an excess of copper can cause symptoms such as loss of appetite, anemia, osteoporosis, poor coverage of wool, and much more.
In extreme cases, it can be fatal. Provide your sheep with a mineral supplement meant for sheep only – don’t use one for goats.
Algae, especially blue-green algae, can cause symptoms that mimic an allergic reaction in sheep. Symptoms appear out of nowhere, causing the sheep to convulse and often die. Since algae are most often found growing in stagnant, warm water, it is important to change and refill the water (and clean the pools) regularly.
3. Blister Beetle
Sheep do not willingly eat insects, but blister beetles are often found hiding in alfalfa grass. This is a common hiding place for beetles, which contain a toxic substance called cantharidin. It can kill sheep even in small quantities.
First cut hay is less likely to be contaminated than late hay – insects have not yet swarmed when it is still early in the season. Consider buying only the first cut, if possible, to prevent these beetles from making your sheep sick.
4. Cereal Poison Po
Also known as acidosis, grain poisoning can occur when sheep eat large amounts of grain. This releases carbohydrates into the rumen where they are fermented rather than digested.
This can cause your sheep to suffer from symptoms such as bloating, dehydration and diarrhea. In severe cases, acidosis can kill a sheep.
Mycotoxins are substances produced by molds. They can be harmful to a variety of animals and can infect sheep through contaminated bedding or food – especially those that are present in moist, warm environments.
Keep your storage and housing areas clean, cool and dry. Prevention is the key to keeping your sheep safe from mycotoxins!
what to feed the sheep instead
Again, the good news is that sheep are tough, versatile creatures. They’ll eat almost anything, but you’ll have to limit the amount of dietary exploration they do – stick to hay and a little bit of grain, and you’ll be in the clear.
If you want to know more about what to feed your sheep, be sure to check out this helpful feeding article.