The Old Vet’nary – Intelligent Sheep

The Old Vet’nary – Intelligent Sheep

Scientific pundits recently published the results of studies which show that sheep are more intelligent than dogs.  I could have told them that.  Most people underestimate the savvy of sheep because they are not in close enough contact with them.  Seen at a distance, on the hillside or in the field, their antics seem to lack sense; but when you think of it, they mostly add up to keeping out of the way of man and his accomplice the dog, both they have learned mean trouble.  Give them the chance to interact with man on a level of mutual trust and a different character emerges.

My wife and I used to keep sheep, but as our grass was not very productive we had to get them in every day for extra feed and so we got to know them and they got to know us very well.  In the first place, and if they are allowed to, they form lifelong friendships.  The first flock of sheep we had were a mixed lot, but amongst them were two Poll Dorset Horns, and they were inseparable.  So much so that we could not tell one from the other.  What with that and their gentle nature we just called them the Sweeties.  One would not move without the other.  They slept side by side and were never parted.  They were no youngsters when they came, and lived into their teens.  When the end came for one of them from sheer old age, it happened when they came in for feeding.  Her mate stood over her and when the flock were let out after feeding, she stayed as long as she could and then reluctantly walked out to the flock with just one or two backward looks, because a sheep must always be with the flock.

The flock is everything, their protection and security.  To see the way it interacts is an example to humans in behaviour.  There is always a leader.  When the decision is made to move to another location, it is done in an orderly fashion.  In single file they stick to well worn tracks and when two files join into one, they politely take it in turns to join the main track.  Fights are rare and are mostly for show and their lambs get most concerned and often try to interpose themselves between the mothers.  But let them into fresh grass and you will see them young and old, kick up their heels with joy, a sight which must move even the most hardened shepherd.

They seem to recognise humans at a distance by their clothes.  A new coat can cause panic, but on close-up they go by smell.  My wife has long blond hair and when she bent over to fill the trough they took great delight in smelling her hair, even sometimes forgetting to dive their noses into the trough.

Lambs are like children, and like all children they have a play hour just before dusk.  It starts as a general get-together, as though they were loitering on the street corner.  Then one jumps straight up in the air and they are off.  Running races first.  One or two timid souls look around for mother first before dashing after the mob.  After a run in one direction they stop, moon around and then they are off back the way they came.  They can make games with just the simplest props.  A bale of hay or a tiny hillock and they play “king of the castle”.  One jumps up and defies anyone to come up and barge him off.  Then the shadows lengthen and the ewes start to call the lambs back and reluctantly they comply.  Sometimes ewes join in, or an excited lamb will jump on its mother’s back and tramp back and forth.

You may have noticed that so far this has been a mainly female affair.  When the rams come in everything goes haywire, fighting all round, and that’s just the females.  Perhaps it’s an allegory for human behaviour.  I remember when I worked on a farm in Cumbria that all day the air was filled with a repeated “crack” as the two rams charged each other head on just for the hell of it.  But for me the height of bliss is found in milking a ewe.  It takes all sorts!

Ken Watson

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