Most shepherds already knew this, but there is now scientific proof that sheep aren’t stupid.
This New Scientist article details research at the University of Cambridge. The researchers discovered the intelligence of sheep by accident — while trying to measure the effects of Huntington’s Disease in sheep afflicted with the genetic disease, they needed a baseline for those unaffected by the disease’s neurological symptoms. The sheep could discriminate between different colors and shapes of buckets and even “mastered a subtler game in which the food was still in one of the buckets but the clue to its location was the colour of a cone placed nearby, not the colour of the bucket itself.”
The article adds:
It really is about time we stopped making fun of sheep. They can not only recognise each other’s faces, especially sheep they are socially close to – they can remember significant others for at least two years. They can also discriminate breeds, preferring to look at their own.
What’s more, there is evidence that they can group plants by family and memorise the correct route through a maze. They have sophisticated social lives too: rams become long-term buddies and stick up for each other in fights.
There are even claims that sheep in the UK have learned to cross cattle grids by rolling across them, but further research may be needed on that point.
One of the referenced articles points out: “Sheep can recognise the faces of at least 50 other sheep and 10 humans – although this is probably a considerable underestimate – and that after seeing them in tests over the course of a few weeks they can remember all these faces for at least two years.” But again, we shepherds knew that, didn’t we?
Many shepherds report “cliques” in their flock, and that that mothers stay with their daughters when the daughters are giving birth. I’ve also been told that rams kept together establish a flock order and don’t fight, but will fight a new, unknown ram. I have seen senior ewes in our flock get in the middle of two younger ewes who are fighting to try to put a stop to the nonsense. Our halter trained sheep never forget, even when years pass since they have been shown. And they have incredible memories for places and things — where the best grass or a favorite tree is — even if they have been fenced out of a location for months.
Understanding sheep behavior, especially where minimizing stress is concerned, is important because sheep can literally die from “sheep stress syndrome,” in which a cascade of stressful events leads to fatal pneumonia. That’s why we try to get all of our sheep used to being handled, and keep groups together when we need to perform stressful tasks like hoof trimming, shearing and weaning. And of course, we would never take a sheep to a fair alone. It’s worthwhile to take a buddy, even if he or she isn’t likely to place.
The bucket experiment also shows that it’s easy to teach sheep how to do tasks by using food, which is how I halter train show lambs.
Now when people ask me if sheep are stupid, I have scientific proof that they aren’t!