April 19, 2024

Whenever you hear the word sheep, the first animal you imagine is likely to be a pristine white, docile grass-eater dwelling in a field somewhere.

But there are other kinds of sheep than those, and the most iconic of the mountain sheep extant in the world is the bighorn sheep native to North America.

These stout, muscular sheep derive their name from the massive, curved horns carried by males of the species.

These sheep are famous for their epic headbutting clashes during mating season. This begs the question: are bighorn sheep dangerous?

No, bighorn sheep are not truly dangerous and attacks on humans are very rare in the wild. However, adult bighorns can weigh several hundred pounds, and a charge could inflict substantial injury.

Bighorns are one of those animals that certainly could be dangerous if they came into contact with humans more, but their typical habitat and propensity to use the terrain to their advantage to avoid predation means that humans rarely get close enough to tangle with them.

That being said, you could be in for a rough time if you do! Learn more about these fascinating mountain sheep in the rest of this article.

Understanding Bighorn Sheep Behavior

Bighorn sheep are herd animals, like all sheep, and move around in large groups consisting of multiple males and females.

All sheep generally get along until the rut, or mating season draws near, and in the run-up to mating season males will begin to clash, with their iconic head-butting charges echoing around the mountains and dales where they are found.

Bighorn sheep, like all mountain sheep and goats, tend to be extremely sure-footed and rely upon the steep, rocky, mountainous terrain to provide them protection from predators, of which only equally agile predators like wolves, mountain lions and bears have any success at taking them, and even then it is usually lambs that are picked off.

Notably, accidents do occur and sheep periodically trip and fall, sometimes plummeting right off the side of a mountain to their death.

Bighorn sheep are rarely encountered by people at close quarters thanks to the typical environment that the sheep inhabit, and the sheep’s excellent senses, particularly vision.

Bighorn sheep can spot a predator moving from a long way off, and will usually relocate at the first sign of trouble.

This means it’s so much of the time, except in the rarest circumstances, bighorn sheep will remain out of the reach of people and so close contact rarely occurs.

Are Bighorn Sheep Aggressive Toward Humans?

As a rule, no, because the sheep tend to avoid trouble and relocate whenever they can. Much of the time people will simply not even be able to get close to them, or get close to them in a timely fashion.

However, these circumstances are not out of the question and bighorn sheep can prove to be quite defensive of their young, and males become stereotypically aggressive immediately before and during the rut.

Have Bighorn Sheep Ever Attacked Humans?

Yes, although attacks on humans are exceedingly rare among all the species of wild animals and mammals in particular.

Attacks are most common in settings where bighorns are domesticated or being kept in captivity.

How Do Bighorn Sheep Attack?

Bighorn sheep attack by charging, ramming and headbutting. They may stomp or trample a downed opponent with their sharp hooves.

Bighorn sheep derived their name from the massive, spiraled horns possessed by males, though females also have horns that are much shorter and gently curving.

In any case, an adult bighorn sheep can easily weigh a couple of hundred pounds, and massive males can top 500 pounds.

Considering that the horns themselves weigh a couple of dozen pounds at least, and the fact that males can sprint at more than 20 miles an hour, a charging headbutt from one of these massive and muscular sheep can easily break bones and inflict internal injuries.

What Causes Bighorn Sheep Aggression?

As mentioned above, bighorn sheep typically become aggressive only when approached, when lambs are threatened or during the rut.

Assuming you’re even able to get close enough to these sheep in the wild, make sure you keep a safe distance from them and take special care to avoid them at any of the above times.

Do Bighorn Sheep Eat People?

No. Bighorn sheep are strictly herbivores and do not eat meat.

Are Bighorn Sheep Territorial?

No. Bighorn sheep live and roam in large flocks, traveling from place to place in search of food as the seasons change and their usual feeding areas are depleted. 

How Strong is a Bighorn Sheep?

Extremely strong. If you ever have the opportunity to watch bighorn sheep in the wild, you will marvel at how quickly and gracefully they navigate terrain that, to us, looks completely impassable.

Scrambling up sheer rock faces, leaping across gaps and maintaining a pace that will make you feel out of breath just watching it.

During the pre-rut, males clash with an intensity that sends the reverberating cracks of their collisions echoing around the mountains like gunshots and they can keep up this behavior for a long time until one is defeated or submits.

If any bighorn sheep were to ram you, but especially a male, the impact would be tremendous.

What Should You Do if You See a Bighorn Sheep?

If you see a bighorn sheep it is probably going to be from quite a distance. In this case, feel free to admire it.

However, if you spot one at a closer distance, or across terrain where you and the sheep could potentially close with one another, make sure you keep a safe distance and avoid them if at all possible.

What Should You Do if Attacked by a Bighorn Sheep?

Your number one priority if attacked by a bighorn sheep is simply to get away by the safest, surest and quickest route.

Considering that you are likely to encounter these sheep on terrain where they have an advantage you’ll have to be especially careful that you are not knocked off a ledge, down a slope or otherwise made to lose your footing, potentially with lethal results.

If you have sure footing, you should try to protect yourself against the charge of the sheep.

Sidestepping a charge and taking hold of the animal in an effort to topple it will be to your advantage, but this will be much easier said than done.

If this is not an option, you should curl up into a bowl and protect your head, using your legs in an effort to kick at and restrain the sheep from striking you.

Once the sheep thinks you are no longer a threat or has an obvious route of escape it should leave you alone.

Do Bighorn Sheep Carry Diseases People Can Catch?

Bighorn sheep are sadly vulnerable to many introduced diseases that have decimated their numbers over the years, including sheep pneumonia, sinusitis and other germs.

Thankfully, there does not seem to be a preponderance of any bacteriological, viral or parasitic organisms that are readily transmitted to people outside of fleas and ticks.