Sally Coulthard lives on a smallholding in rural North Yorkshire, England, with her Soay sheep, and is the author of Follow the Flock: How Sheep Shaped Human Civilization.
In 2004, the inhabitants of the English hill village of Marsden were flummoxed. How were sheep, living on the edge of the rural area, getting over a cattle grid and into Marsden to nibble the lawns of local residents? The cattle grid – a large hole in the road covered with a series of iron bars, making it impossible to traverse by hoof – had been installed a decade earlier to keep the sheep grazing on the moorland and away from the tasty flower beds. Suddenly, it didn’t seem to be working anymore, but the grid was still too wide to leap over, and far too precarious to tiptoe along. So how were the sheep getting across?
Villagers set up a reconnaissance mission to figure it out, but no one expected what they discovered: The sheep had worked out how to get on their backs and roll across the cattle grid, like well-trained SAS commandos. As one bemused local councillor later told the press: “They lie down on their side, or sometimes their back, and just roll over and over the grids until they are clear.”
Marsden’s redoubtable sheep, with their ingenious problem-solving, quickly became overnight celebrities. But scientists who study our woolly friends and their cognitive abilities weren’t remotely surprised. It turns out we have been underestimating sheep for centuries – and, even worse, misrepresenting the entire ovine species.
Amid protests around the COVID-19 restrictions, the accusation that rule-followers are merely “sheep” – that is, some stereotypically dim-witted, flock-bound beast – has risen in popularity. One conspiracy theory, firmly debunked in the pandemic’s early months, even claimed that according to ancient symbology the word “COVID-19″ actually means “see a sheep surrender.” And the idea that sheep are gullible dolts has persisted for decades, including in George Orwell’s 1945 parable Animal Farm.
But the metaphor, called upon with depressing regularity in recent times, couldn’t be further from the truth. Sheep are fascinating creatures that share a surprising number of qualities with humankind – and in some cases, we would be wise to follow their lead.
We may mock sheep for their flock behaviour, turning the animal into a symbol for blind loyalty or unthinking choices, but what evolutionary scientists have shown is that the sheep’s trademark co-operative behaviour and herding instincts have proved a canny strategy for ovines and, indeed, many other animals who live in social groups. Flock-like behaviour often appears reactive or lacking in individual agency, but operating as a tight group can bring many benefits. Flocking behaviour helps sheep reconcile two often opposing forces: the need to find food and the need to keep safe. Working as a team, in a stressful situation such as an open plain, allows sheep to balance the need to eat with the instinct to protect themselves from predators. Sheep who follow the flock, rather than go it alone, are testament to the success of an evolutionary strategy that favours co-operation rather than competition.
Sheep are also surprisingly intelligent. In 2007, scientists at the University of Cambridge discovered that sheep performed certain learning tasks at levels similar to monkeys and humans. Lead scientist professor Jenny Morton explained just how talented sheep are: “They’ve got big brains – I’d challenge someone who wasn’t an expert to tell the difference between a monkey brain and a sheep brain. And they are immensely trainable. You can take any old sheep out of a field and in two weeks teach it to do a task it might take a monkey nine months to learn.”
Studies have shown that sheep can recognize and remember at least 50 different faces, both human and their own kind – and what’s more, they can still recognize these same faces after a two-year interval. Pictures of familiar sheep can also calm a lone sheep, but not images of goats. Ovines are also good at recognizing other sheep from photographs; one test showed that sheep who were shown photographs of three-month-old lambs could recognize pictures of the same lambs at only one month old. Indeed, this facial recall is so acute that sheep can identify another flock member from its side profile after only seeing photographs of a frontal image.
Humans have a specialized neural mechanism for visual recognition, which allows us to differentiate and remember lots of different faces. This is thought to be one of the most important traits needed for social interaction and relationships – imagine a world where everyone you met was a stranger. It turns out that sheep have similar neural systems in their temporal and frontal lobes. What’s even more incredible is that sheep have been shown to be capable of distinguishing between different facial expressions and, as with us humans, much prefer a happy, smiling face to a sad expression or a grimace.
Sheep are also remarkable problem-solvers. Researchers have repeatedly tested how sheep deal with complex mazes; one experiment showed that not only could sheep navigate their way through a tricky maze without too many problems, but that on every subsequent occasion the sheep got quicker and quicker. What took two minutes to solve on the first day, took only 30 seconds by the third. And, even more astonishing, six weeks later when the sheep were tested again, they remembered their way through perfectly, equalling their previous best times.
Sheep have been shown to learn from each other, picking up tasks by watching a flock-mate, and capable of remembering where food was hidden in a maze after nearly six months had passed. That’s like a human remembering where they’ve stashed a packet of biscuits at the back of a cupboard, half a year after hiding it.
And there is another unexpected trait we have in common with sheep that could hopefully guide a more tolerant and inclusive society: Researchers have found that in any flock of domestic sheep, about 8 per cent of the males seem to prefer the company of other males, even in the presence of fertile females. There are plenty of other examples of homosexuality in the natural world, from female macaques to male fruit flies; many species engage in same-sex behaviour, whether by accident or for pleasure and social bonding. But the majority of those other animals seem to switch between homosexual and heterosexual behaviour; they don’t show consistent sexual orientation. Only two species have ever been seen to show same-sex preference for life, even when partners of the opposite sex are readily available: humans and, surprisingly, domestic sheep.
For a long time, homosexual behaviour was seen as “unnatural,” a view that persists in certain places around the world. How could it possibly be beneficial for the survival of a species, the argument goes, to have same-sex couples, which aren’t able to pass on their genes to the next generation? And yet, what the science of sheep sexuality shows us is that homosexual behaviour doesn’t challenge Darwinian ideas, but may in fact reinforce them.
The theory is that there may be one particular gene that reveals itself in two different ways: The gene that expresses itself as homosexual behaviour in male sheep could be the same gene that increases a female sheep’s fertility. The female siblings of gay sheep produce more offspring than average, helping that specific gene to carry on in subsequent generations. In other words, the gene that predisposes some sheep to be homosexual promotes reproductive success in others. Sheep farmers have, over the centuries, enhanced the effects of this gene by choosing and breeding from females that are the most fertile.
To brand someone a “sheep” or dismiss the masses as “sheeple,” is to fundamentally misunderstand the uniqueness, complexity and intelligence of this wonderful creature. We also do it a great historical disservice. Since our Neolithic ancestors’ first forays in sheep-farming nearly 11,000 years ago, this engaging and immensely useful creature has fed us, clothed us, and financed some of the world’s greatest civilizations.
From the ancient plains of Mesopotamia to the rugged sheep farms in modern-day Canada, sheep have been central to the story of human expansion, trade and success. They were one of the earliest animals to be domesticated, the backbone of the first textile industries; they brought riches to both the Greeks and Romans, and were central to ancient Egyptian religion. Medieval Europe grew rich on the backs of sheep and wool trading, while one of the main drivers of the Industrial Revolution was the market for woollen stockings and warm woven cloth. Wherever it was practiced, sheep farming transformed rural landscapes from wilderness to wealth-generating pastureland; its meat and milk raised generation upon generation. Sheep even formed the foundations of some of history’s most significant events and epochs: few people realize that the wealth of the Renaissance, the success of the Vikings, the mobility of the Mongols, the architectural riches of England or the colonization of Australia wouldn’t have been possible without the humble ovine.
Far from slandering sheep as mindless creatures, we should be celebrating their intelligence, character and immense utility. Someone calls you a “sheep?” Take it as a compliment. I certainly do.
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