Animal Behaviour



When cattle are allowed to wander where they please and are not contained within fences we call them free-ranging. Free-ranging cattle behave as their wild ancestors did. Cattle search the ground for plentiful sources of the grasses, herbs and leaves they consume. Cows are herbivores, which means they eat only plants, not meat. Cows chew their food and then swallow it. They have four large stomachs that mash up all the food and help it to digest very quickly. When they have eaten, cows lie down to allow this process to take place. They bring any bits of food that are not mushing easily back up to their mouths and re-chew them. This is called chewing the cud. We call animals who do this, including sheep and goats, ruminants.

Some people think that bulls have horns and cows do not, but both male and female cattle can have horns. Cows protect their calves from predators by lowering their heads and charging towards the attacker, brandishing their horns if they have them. Living in a herd helps to overcome this problem because herd members will co-operate to protect their young.

How to say ‘hello’ to cattle

Never turn your back on a bull, even if he appears very friendly. In fact, it’s best to avoid a bull altogether, if you can. Sometimes, like all cattle, bulls can be nosy and want to investigate you because you are new to their world. You should be very cautious if this happens. Bulls are simply too big and strong to be trusted.

Calves are much safer to talk to. They like to say “hello” to new friends and often approach humans with their tongues out, because they like to suckle. It tickles (a lot!) but let the calf do this if she wants to. It helps her to understand that you are not going to hurt her. You should not allow your fingers to slip too far inside the calf’s mouth. Towards the sides of the mouth at the back calves have extremely sharp grinding teeth.

Handle with care making friends with animals by Paul McGreevy.

Handle with care making friends with animals by Paul McGreevy.

If you are frightened by cattle, you should stand still. If you stay still, they will eventually get bored and go away. If you run you could trip and fall they are more likely to hurt you by accident. If you have a dog with you let go of its lead and let the cattle chase it instead of you.

The main thing to remember is to be gentle with cows and calves. Frightened cows can hurt themselves — or you! — while calm animals are easy to handle and extremely friendly.

Sheep and goats

Goats and sheep are similar in lots of ways. They are both called ruminants, because like cows, they have four compartments in their stomachs and chew the cud. Humans use both sheep and goats for meat and milk and we also use their coats to grow fibres that can be made into clothing. But what is the difference between a sheep and a goat?

Goats are among the best climbers in the animal world. They hardly ever fall or slip, and can jump from rock to rock to get away from predators. Goats browse on leaves and twigs while sheep graze on grass. Sheep are not as good at mountain climbing, so they are generally found in valleys or on hillsides. Sheep are less sure-footed and can tumble upside down, so they seek safety in numbers and live in large groups, called flocks.  On the other hand, sheep are able to cope with bad weather better than goats are.

Although goats will always run away from danger, they will defend themselves if they are cornered and have nowhere to run. They can charge at the attacker and use their horns to defend themselves. By stamping a front foot to the ground, both sheep and goats warn their attacker that they are about to charge. It may look as though they are being bad-tempered but they are probably saying, “I know that I can run no further, so I will fight you if you do not leave me alone.”

Handle with care making friends with animals by Paul McGreevy.

Handle with care making friends with animals by Paul McGreevy.

How to say ‘hello’ to sheep and goats

Sheep and goats are easily frightened, because they have few ways to defend themselves. Even though you mean them no harm, very few sheep and goats will want to say hello to you. However, by using some of their favourite foods to tempt and distract them, you can often get quite close—especially if they are hungry! Usually, however, only sheep and goats who have been hand-raised by humans enjoy human company enough to speak to strangers. Don’t be offended if a sheep or a goat prefers to keep its distance when you try to say hello!


Wild pigs live in forests. They are omnivores, which means they eat grass, fruits from trees and berries from bushes, and they snack on worms, roots and fungus under the surface of the forest floor. If they get the chance they will eat small mammals and birds. They are not disgusted by dead things. Like dogs, they will chew on the carcasses of dead animals and find them rather tasty. An adult boar, or male pig, often has tusks, which are giant teeth that stick out to the sides of his mouth. A female pig is called a sow and the young ones are piglets. Because pigs do not have good eyesight they rely on other senses, such as hearing and smell, to tell them what is going on in the world around them. Hearing is very important to pigs too. If one member of a group of pigs hears something that startles it, it will race off in the opposite direction and then spin around very quickly to face whatever it heard. This alerts all the other pigs to the possibility of danger from an attacker. They will all stop what they are doing and remain very still so that they can listen carefully to find out what is going on.

How to say ‘hello’ to a pig

To say hello to a pig you must let him approach you at his own speed. Don’t rush up to him because he will think that you are trying to make him move away—this is how farmers move pigs from one pen to another. If you stand still he will come to you, but he will be very shy. Do not speak, just let him sniff your hand. He may try to nibble at it with his front teeth. These teeth are tiny and will not hurt you. If you have some food for the pig feed it to him in a bucket. He will poke his snout into the bucket and find the food very quickly. You will be amazed how strong he is. You will be doing a very good job if you manage to hold onto the bucket, because the pig will push it towards you and from side to side trying to get as much food into his mouth as fast as he can.

Handle with care making friends with animals by Paul McGreevy.

Handle with care making friends with animals by Paul McGreevy.

If you accidentally frighten a pig he may use the same defence against you that he uses against another pig—those big tusks of his. Most pigs do not have tusks but old boars often have enormous teeth and these can be very dangerous. The best thing to do if a pig charges at you is to climb onto a fence or gate or wall. Pigs cannot climb and you will be completely safe if you remain there until the pig wanders off for a snack or an adult arrives to help.


Poultry is the name we give to birds such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, peafowl, swans and pigeons. Lots of humans like to eat poultry meat. We also keep some of these birds for their eggs. Some people keep the more fancy breeds of poultry as pets.

How to handle poultry

When you want to handle poultry, you should pay attention to their behaviour. Look for warning signals that tell you they are becoming upset. Warning sounds made by chickens include a “cut-cut-cut” or a long “cur-r-r-r-r-r” sound that lets the other flock members know danger is approaching. Turkeys will gobble quickly when they are alarmed. Alarmed geese honk and hiss while ducks quack more loudly than usual. Attack warnings from poultry are clear and should be taken seriously. Poultry can scratch, bite and peck, and they can hurt!

Handle with care making friends with animals by Paul McGreevy.

Handle with care making friends with animals by Paul McGreevy.

When some birds are about to attack, they fluff up their feathers, especially around the neck. Angry roosters will stare in the direction of the enemy, then take off and charge using their spurs. Spurs are sharp bony things on their feet which give a painful scratch. In fact, all male poultry can be a bit dangerous, so it’s best not to go near them unless you are with an adult. Hens will usually only peck you if they are sitting on eggs in a nest or when they are protecting chicks, and mother geese can be dangerous when they have goslings.

Catching and holding poultry

The main thing to remember when catching and handling poultry is to do everything slowly and gently. If you are carrying their food bucket they will be keen to find out what you have in it. You should move slowly so as not to frighten them. Frightened birds are difficult to catch and they can be injured in their haste to escape. Walk slowly towards the bird and herd it into a tight corner. Then place one hand on its back to stop it flying up and the other underneath, to gently hold the legs together. Never grab them by their legs because their feet are very delicate.

When handling young birds, sit down first and then cup them firmly in your hands, so if they fall they drop into your lap. Never squeeze birds, as you can easily hurt them. Once caught, all poultry can be held in much the same way.  Facing the bird, put your middle finger under the body of the bird between the legs and use your second and fourth fingers to hold the legs firmly. Rest the weight of the bird on your arm and tuck the bird’s head under your armpit. It is dark there and this calms the bird. Holding a bird in this way  helps to control its wings and makes the bird less likely to attempt escape. Most birds hate being caught, so only handle them if you really have to.