Wolves will kill and eat sheep, which leads to a lot of anger between farmers and ranchers, as well as a lot of damage. But research shows that they most commonly don’t do it for sport, but for survival.
In 2014 alone, wolves killed 3879 sheep and cattle in the US alone, according to the official USDA records. This leads to anger and disdain for wolves among farmers and cattle owners, leading them to believe that wolves kill purely for sport, and not for food.
That notion was further supported by the fact that the sheep were only killed but not eaten entirely. Why does that happen?
The answer is that wolves are programmed to kill whenever they find an easy opportunity to do so, which is a mechanism that has developed over hundreds of years of fighting for their lives in the wild.
Do Wolves Eat Sheep?
Yes, wolves will eat sheep when they’re hungry, but there have been many different reports stating that wolves have killed entire sheep herds but haven’t eaten them.
Wolves are very opportunistic animals.
They will eat when they have an opportunity to do so, and their feeding patterns are highly uneven.
They will go through periods of abundance and relatively satiation for large periods of the summer and autumn, but they’ll also go through long periods of hunger, especially through winter.
That’s why they will look for any opportunity they can find. Some farmers opt to leave sheep outside through autumn and sometimes even deep into the winter, which presents a good opportunity for wolves to hunt.
Sheep are also not the fastest animals, so they can’t really escape wolf attacks. When a wolf pack attacks a sheep herd, there might be slaughter – however, if wolves are hungry, they will eat the sheep they can kill.
Why Do Wolves Leave Some Sheep Killed But Not Eaten, Then?
This mostly happens during the summer when they have enough food to survive comfortably.
According to L. David Mech, who wrote the book Wolves on the Hunt where he analyses the predatory behavior of wolves, it is written in their DNA, and almost even programmed inside their brains.
Mech says that wolves are programmed to kill if they find an easy opportunity to do so. Because they go through prolonged periods of hunger, they have adapted to kill when they can, especially if the prey is easy to catch as the sheep are.
Mech also says that surplus killing like this is uncommon, especially in the wild. But these behaviors are still continuing, despite the fact that it’s uncommon.
It’s a phenomenon that farmers have had to adapt to, and several farmers are taking drastic measures to protect their livestock.
French authorities have tried to change this wolf behavior to stop the surplus killing of the sheep.
Their goal is to “re-educate” the wolves and stop them from killing innocent animals for the sake of killing, in a project called the “National Wolf Plan”. Their aim is to capture individual wolves and make them traumatized so much when they encounter sheep so that they’re unable to kill them in the wild again.
The project began in 2013 and the effects of it are still not clearly known, but it has been showing promising signs.
It’s still unclear what governments are going to do; some are compensating farmers for their losses, while other governments are looking for other types of support for the farmers that have been impacted.
Do Wolves Kill Sheep for Sport or Food?
Wolves kill primarily for food, and they don’t tend to kill for sport like some other predators do, especially wild cats.
According to David Mech, surplus killing is uncommon and not noticeable especially in the wild, because wolves are not often exposed to killing opportunities other than for food.
But when they spot sheep or other livestock animals that are enclosed and thus not able to escape, they might start killing them for the sake of it rather than for food.
What happens there is that they catch more food they can eat, which especially happens in the warmer months of the year. The result is that they will leave the caught sheep uneaten, even though they’re not particularly hungry.
Again, it’s the predatory mechanism in play here that causes them to do this, despite the fact that they’re not threatened.
They’ll be programmed to look for easy opportunities to find food, which they have taught themselves to do in times of need. Once the need for food is not there anymore, they will start killing animals for sport, especially the ones that are easier to kill like sheep.
How Many Sheep Do Wolves Kill Per Year?
Statistically, the number of sheep killed by wolves per year in the last few years has been at around 500, which amounts to around 3500 per year of cattle killed by wolves in the US.
The numbers have been decreasing though, and the authorities are doing everything they can to help the farmers.
Also, the techniques of stopping wolves from killing sheep are becoming increasingly better. In states and areas where wolf populations are high, farmers have adapted their protective measures against wolf attacks.
These include higher and stronger fences, stronger protection that prevents entering the pens, and sometimes even actively guarding the pens to stop the wolves from coming in. In some states, it is illegal to kill a wolf, so farmers have had to look for other ways of protecting their livestock against wolf attacks.
Sheep are vulnerable against wolf attacks, and they will sometimes be killed for the sake of it. Wolves have a strong predatory mechanism that “forces” them to kill when they see the opportunity, even though they’re not threatened or hungry.
However, in recent years, sheep protection has become stronger and farmers have learned how to cope with wolf attacks, and some governments are even aiming to prevent these attacks from happening in the first place.