Parity and housing effects on the behavioural and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response of pregnant ewes

Nur Nadiah Yusof*, Kenneth Rutherford, Susan Jarvis, Leonor Valente, CM Dwyer

*Corresponding author for this work

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It is common in many countries for sheep to be housed during winter from mid-gestation until lambing to protect ewes and lambs from adverse conditions and improve late gestation nutritional management. Keeping ewes indoors, however, has its own challenges as the animals may be mixed with unfamiliar conspecifics, have limited floor and feeding space, experience changes to their diet and increased handling by humans. Therefore, the objective of this study was to investigate the effect of variation in housing management (space allowance and social stability) on the behaviour and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis responses of pregnant ewes from mid-to-late gestation (weeks 11–18 of pregnancy). Seventy-seven ewes (41 primiparous, 36 multiparous) were divided into two groups: ‘Control’ and ‘Restricted space and mixed’ (RS-Mix), where RS-Mix ewes were allocated half the amount of space (1.27 vs 2.5 m 2 for RS-Mix and Control, respectively) and feedface (concentrate feeder space) allowance (36 vs 71 cm per ewe) given to the Control group and were also subjected to two social mixing events. Aggressive behaviour at the feedface and time spent standing, lying, walking, feeding and ruminating were recorded and faecal samples were collected for assessment of faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations. Higher aggression was observed in RS-Mix ewes during the first week of observation (P = 0.044), which gradually declined to the same level as Control ewes by the end of the study (P = 0.045). RS-Mix ewes were significantly less likely to be able to freely join the feedface compared to Controls (P = 0.022). No other significant treatment effects on aggressive behaviour or FGM during gestation were found. RS-Mix ewes displayed significantly higher ruminating behaviour at week 18 of gestation compared to Control ewes (P < 0.001), but no other effects were seen on general pen behaviour. However, the effect of indoor housing had a significant impact on primiparous ewes, who had lower weight gain (P = 0.015) and higher FGM concentrations (P = 0.014) compared to multiparous ewes regardless of treatment group. The data suggest that, although no sustained effects on behaviour or HPA axis responses were seen with the differences in space and feeder allowance or social stability at the levels used in this study, inexperienced (primiparous) ewes may find indoor housing more stressful; and are less able to adapt compared to multiparous ewes. These effects may influence the behaviour of the ewe at lambing time, and her offspring.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101006
Issue number11
Early online date26 Oct 2023
Publication statusPrint publication - Nov 2023


  • Sheep, Domestic/genetics
  • stocking density
  • Social mixing
  • Gestation
  • Glucocorticoids


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