June 22, 2017

In Honor of Blue – All About Sheep!

We could not be more excited at Farmaste!  In case you missed the news on Facebook, we rescued our first resident last week!  A beautiful lamb named Blue.  (You can see more of her at our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/FarmasteAnimalSanctuary/). In honor of her arrival, I decided to devote this week’s post to sheep.  One of the best surprises of working with farmed animals has been getting to know sheep as individuals. I had always assumed but they weren’t particularly smart or affectionate. I couldn’t have been more wrong! They are some of the sweetest animals I have ever met, and many of them enjoy human interaction. They know their names and once you get to know them, they will run to greet you. In fact, I have heard them described as “aggressive cuddlers” and I couldn’t agree more.  If you stop petting, they will paw at you like a dog until you return to giving them your full attention.

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals 

I was not alone in thinking that sheep are not particularly intelligent animals.  After all, people who don’t think for themselves are often disparaged as sheep. However, recent research is combating this common belief. While it is true that sheep often blindly follow each other (on rare occasions to their own detriment) it is actually a highly adaptive trait for prey animals whose only defense against predators is flock movement. If a predator is threatening the flock, deciding to run off own your own is a profoundly bad idea! This strong flock mentality means that sheep are very social animals with strong bonds. They always keep visual contact with other sheep and can become highly agitated if separated from their flock. This connection is so strong, that sheep are sometimes accompanied to the vet by their closest friends in order to improve outcomes. Strong social bonds also require that sheep be able to understand other’s emotional states. A study by Cambridge University found that sheep could pick up emotional cues in other sheep and humans – and they preferred facial expressions that signaled positive emotional states such as smiling. So the next time you meet a sheep, be sure to smile (although in my experience, it is hard not to!).

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals 

Not only can sheep recognize emotions in others, they can remember the faces of sheep and humans for up to two years! In a study published in the journal Nature, sheep were rewarded with food when they moved toward pictures of certain sheep. The sheep quickly learned to discriminate between sheep faces that did and did not yield a reward. The sheep got it right 80% of the time and some up the sheep could remember up to 50 images for two years! They are also able to recognize bully sheep and become distressed when sheep that have caused trouble for the flock are nearby. It has even been suggested that sheep may think about other’s faces when they are not there, for example a missing sheep in their flock or a person who routinely cares for them who has been absent.

Research has also suggested that sheep have advanced learning capabilities (similar to that of monkeys on some tasks). Professor Morton at the University of Cambridge tested sheep’s learning abilities by using yellow and blue buckets to determine how long it would take sheep to figure out that the food was always in the same colored buckets. The sheep learned this task in about seven sessions. Professor Morton then upped the difficulty of the task – the sheep had to learn where the food was according to shapes (color no longer mattered).  The sheep learned this complex task (one that mice & rats aren’t able to learn) within 32 attempts.

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals 

Finally, one of my favorite stories about sheep highlights their ability to solve problems.  Hungry sheep in Great Britain taught themselves to roll on their backs eight feet across cattle grids (hoof-proof metal grids) to dine in nearby villagers’ gardens. A witness to this clever workaround said, “They lie down on their side or sometimes their back and just roll over and over the grids until they are clear.” Now don’t tell me sheep aren’t smart!

We can’t wait for you to meet Blue and see for yourself the amazing spirit of sheep.  Come ready to cuddle!

Namaste.