How Smart Are Sheep? Researchers Find Surprising Answers
The Scientific Question: Are Sheep Smart? Reveals Complex Social and Survival Skills
Reading Time: 6 minutes
How do you picture sheep? Passive clones that follow the crowd meekly? The problem for sheep is that most humans do see them this way and forget they have individual needs and preferences. Sheep have gained an unfair reputation: they get called dumb sheep, stupid sheep. But what is the true nature of a sheep? And how smart are sheep, really? Researchers studying sheep behavior and intelligence have uncovered considerable social and survival skills that govern their desire to stick together. With this knowledge, we can see sheep following each other from another perspective—not mindlessly tagging along, but the product of social preferences in a world where the group gives mutual support.
Are Sheep Smart Learners?
Cognition tests reveal that there is nothing dumb about the ovine mind. Sheep can learn tasks quickly, sometimes after two trials. Preferably visual learners, they have keen eyesight around a 270–320º arc. Sheep discriminate different colors within the blue–green–yellow spectrum and can learn to choose containers marked by a certain color. They can even switch this learning to a different color or container shape, although they learn more easily with colors. They also understand that covering feed does not mean that it is no longer there.
Sheep have a good sense of smell and taste for selecting plants. They recognize different species and can categorize them according to similarity. They learn which are beneficial and which to avoid. Scent is used to recognize young and companions, and to communicate with them through glands on the head, abdomen, and feet. A characteristic lip curl, called flehmen, allows sheep to examine complex odors through a specialized organ within the muzzle. In addition, rams use flehmen to test ewes for estrus.
Sheep combine senses and learning with innate intelligence to produce subtle behavior that helps them survive. For example, vulnerable sheep are less likely to exploit the lushest patches of vegetation where ticks are present, whereas healthier individuals will risk the ticks to gain the richer food. Good memory helps sheep to remember where they have found food before. In experimental trials, sheep remembered where food was hidden in a maze when tested 22 weeks later. They also learn from each other. Lambs put in with bottle-fed lambs learn to use the artificial teat faster.
How Do Sheep Protect Themselves?
Sheep’s main form of protection is to flock together. Many eyes make for better vigilance, and many bodies make it harder for a predator to single out individual prey. However, not any sheep will do as flock-mate. Sheep build up relationships of mutual cooperation and friendship, and learn from one another. They need good memories and recognition skills to keep tabs on the many individuals they deal with day to day.
Sheep display the most exceptional learning and discrimination when it comes to other sheep. Shortly after giving birth, ewes and lambs form strong bonds and quickly recognize one another through scent, then sight and sound. In a natural setting, ewes wean lambs after six months and some bonds last longer. In any case, sheep form preferences for certain individuals, initially those most familiar, but often changing over time to, for example, those of similar age. They are calmer and quieter when allowed to remain with their chosen companions. In fact, they prefer to stay with their social group than leave them for desirable feed.
Sheep Need Other Sheep
Isolated sheep become very distressed, often calling, pacing, and nosing or chewing fixtures. Lambs and mothers separated under four months after birth both show distress for several days. Moreover, lambs show poor response to behavioral and immunity tests after early separation.
After one week from birth, lambs form playgroups and show joyful behavior such as gamboling and frolicking. This helps them to learn in a safe environment. Males headbutt and mount each other as they practice forming a hierarchy. Friendship is important for social cohesion, especially among ewes, as a protective strategy at range. Females have little or no pecking order. It is their tendency to bond that governs how they herd and distribute themselves at pasture. To avoid distress and simplify herding, we are wise to take note of the alliances that ewes form among themselves.
On the other hand, hierarchy is common among adult males, and fighting will occur until a rank is established. Horns are important as a sign of rank. The competitive nature of rams calls for careful management during development and maturity.
Sheep Personality Varies Within the Flock
Far from being ubiquitous flock members, individual sheep show different personalities, based on tests of boldness, gregariousness, activity, anxiousness, and maternal style. Personality differences and bonds between individuals affect the way the flock moves and splits. The most gregarious individuals stick together at the front of a moving flock. Less gregarious sheep may be the ones to venture away in search of fresh forage.
How Smart Are Sheep Socially?
Such social selectivity requires good discrimination skills, and sheep are found to distinguish individual differences and have good memories for faces, especially those of other sheep. Lambs take time to learn their mother’s facial features—a month or two—but ewes appear very sensitive to lamb and companions’ faces. They can remember 50 sheep faces for over two years. They prefer photographs of sheep to other species, especially those of familiar individuals, followed by those of the same breed. When in estrus, ewes prefer ram faces, but otherwise, ewes’. Photos of familiar sheep can calm a lone sheep, but not photos of goats. Sheep who learned photographs of three-month-old lambs could identify the same individuals at one month old. Many could also identify an adult sheep from her profile after learning from a frontal image (however, not the reverse).
These identification skills transfer to humans to some extent. Eight sheep learned to identify photos of four celebrities. Most of the time, they could then identify them in photos taken from different angles. Most picked out the photo of a familiar keeper among the images.
Sheep Body Language Displays Their Emotions
Sheep need to be wary of other animals, as they are a prey species. Certain events alert them, rather than cause real fear. For example, when observed by people, they move more often, urinate more, and keep an eye on their observers. To survive, they need to recognize the signs of fear in flock members, such as high vigilance, defecation, freezing, fleeing, or escaping. To this end, sheep are sensitive to the emotion displayed by other sheep through body language or facial expression.
Ears are good indicators of emotions. They are more mobile in negative situations, such as isolation or unpalatable feed. Sheep raise their ears more when vigilant or displeased, and hold them back in intimidating or unpleasant situations. Ears are placed at different angles when rapid and surprising events occur. When relaxed and content, the ears hang loosely.
Sheep can be unnerved by unpredictable, unfamiliar events, and gain confidence when they have a measure of control. They suffer disappointment or frustration when fed less than expected. We are wise to notice the display of emotion in sheep when managing them, as chronically stressed sheep can suffer poor health and welfare. Chronic fear makes lambs more nervous of people and new objects, less willing to explore.
Knowledge of how sheep perceive the world will give us insights into the best methods of animal husbandry. To this end, research continues. With sensitivity to their social and emotional needs, we can help our sheep to be healthy and productive.
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- *Bellegarde L.G.A., Erhard H.W., Weiss A., Boissy A. and Haskell M.J. 2017. Valence of Facial Cues Influences Sheep Learning in a Visual Discrimination Task. Front. Vet. Sci. 4, 188.
Originally published in Countryside in September/October 2020 and regularly vetted for accuracy.