The nutritional intake of Tibetan sheep on the harsh Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau is often under maintenance requirements, especially during the long, cold winter. However, they have adapted well and even thrive under these conditions. The aim of the present study was to gain insight into how the rumen epithelium of Tibetan sheep has adapted to the consumption of low-energy-level diets. For this purpose, we compared Tibetan and small-tailed Han sheep (n 24 of each breed, all wethers and 1·5 years of age), which were divided randomly into one of four groups and offered ad libitum diets of different digestible energy (DE) densities: 8·21, 9·33, 10·45 and 11·57 MJ DE/kg DM. The Tibetan sheep had higher rumen concentrations of total SCFA, acetate, butyrate and iso-acids but lower concentrations of propionate than small-tailed Han sheep. The Tibetan sheep had higher absorption capability of SCFA due to the greater absorption surface area and higher mRNA expression of the SCFA absorption relative genes than small-tailed Han sheep. For the metabolism of SCFA in the rumen epithelium, the small-tailed Han sheep showed higher utilisation of the ketogenesis pathway than Tibetan sheep; however, Tibetan sheep had greater regulation capacity in SCFA metabolism pathways. These differences between breeds allowed the Tibetan sheep to have greater capability of absorbing SCFA and better capacity to regulate the metabolism of SCFA, which would allow them to cope with low energy intake better than small-tailed Han sheep.