The effect of the energy density (ED) of feeds offered as a choice on the diet selection of sheep, and the relationship between the rumen environment and the diet selected from feeds of different ED were investigated in two experiments. In the first experiment two feeds, L and H, and their mixture M (3:1 w/w) were formulated. All feeds had similar calculated metabolizable protein: metabolizable energy (ME) ratios, but differed in ED (7·4, 8·1 and 10·1 MJ ME$sol;kg fresh feed for L, M and H respectively). The feeds were offered ad lib. either singly or in paired choices (L/M, L/H and M/H; n6 per treatment) to growing sheep. Although the rate of live-weight (Lwt) gain on feed H was higher than on feeds L or M, and the daily rate of feed intake lower, the sheep on feed choices did not consume only feed H. Instead they selected a mixture of both feeds offered, such that the total amount of H consumed per kg fresh feed was similar on choices L/H and M/H. The rate of Lwt gain of sheep on choices L/H and M/H was not different from that achieved on feed H alone. In the second experiment the choice L/H was offered to fistulated sheep (10 months of age, mean Lwt 57·5 kg) in an 8×8 Latin square, with 7 d periods. Treatments were infusions into the rumen (total volume 1 litre) over 4 h on days 1–4 of each period of acid (HC1; Acid 1, 400; Acid 2, 300 and Acid 3, 200 mmol/l), alkali (NaOH; Alk 1, 316; Alk 2, 212 and Alk 3, 109 mmol/l) and control (NaCl; Con 1, 315 and Con 2, 209 mmol/l). Infusate osmolalities (mOs/kg) were 795 (Acid 1), 585 (Acid 2, Alk 1 and Con 1), 390 (Acid 3, Alk 2 and Con 2) and 200 (Alk 3). Infusion treatment significantly affected the diet selection of the sheep (P < 0·05) according to the osmolality of infusate, but not according to rumen pH. During infusions intake of feed H tended to decline with increasing treatment osmolality, whereas intake of L remained constant. The effects on diet selection and feed intake were of a short duration with no carry-over effects. These results show that sheep given a choice between two feeds of different ED select a substantial quantity of the low-ED feed; this diet selection is affected by short-term manipulations of their rumen environment, in a manner that is consistent with the maintenance of effective rumen conditions.