This study aimed to gain insight into how adipose tissue of Tibetan sheep regulates energy homoeostasis to cope with low energy intake under the harsh environment of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP). We compared Tibetan and Small-tailed Han sheep (n 24 of each breed), all wethers and 1·5 years of age, which were each divided randomly into four groups and offered diets of different digestible energy (DE) densities: 8·21, 9·33, 10·45 and 11·57 MJ DE/kg DM. When the sheep lost body mass and were assumed to be in negative energy balance: (1) adipocyte diameter in subcutaneous adipose tissue was smaller and decreased to a greater extent in Tibetan than in Small-tailed Han sheep, but the opposite occurred in the visceral adipose tissue; (2) Tibetan sheep showed higher insulin receptor mRNA expression and lower concentrations of catabolic hormones than Small-tailed Han sheep and (3) Tibetan sheep had lower capacity for glucose and fatty acid uptake than Small-tailed Han sheep. Moreover, Tibetan sheep had lower AMPKα mRNA expression but higher mammalian target of rapamycin mRNA expression in the adipocytes than Small-tailed Han sheep. We concluded that Tibetan sheep had lower catabolism but higher anabolism in adipose tissue and reduced the capacity for glucose and fatty acid uptake to a greater extent than Small-tailed Han sheep to maintain energy homoeostasis when in negative energy balance. These responses provide Tibetan sheep with a high ability to cope with low energy intake and with the harsh environment of the QTP.