Sheep smart, farmers smarter

If you were looking for the animal equivalent of mastermind you probably wouldn’t start with a sheep.

But research by Professor Jenny Morton, a neuroscientist at University of Cambridge, has found ovine intelligence is greater than most people realise.

She said: “They have a reputation for being extremely dim and their flock behaviour backs that up as they are very silly animals when in a group – if there is a hole they will fall into it, if there is something to knock over, then they will knock it over.

“So I didn’t expect them to be so amenable to testing and certainly didn’t expect them to be so smart. In our tests they performed at a level very similar to monkeys and humans in the initial learning tasks.

“When we then changed the rules they still performed as well as monkeys and better than rodents.

“They are quite intelligent animals – they seem to be able to recognise people and even respond when you call their name.”

Anyone who’s had pet lambs wouldn’t argue with that. Rainbow, our longest surviving pet lamb loved people, came when she was called and was walking, baaing evidence that sheep aren’t stupid.

Grant McMaster of Closeburn Station  a guest on The Panel yesterday, pointed out that smart sheep require smarter shepherds:

“Sheep are very smart animals and that’s why farmers are smart because they’ve got to outwit the buggers all the time  . . .  Sheep are very smart like the fellows who run them.”

Anyone for maaastermind?

4 Responses to Sheep smart, farmers smarter

  1. ihstewart says:

    Grant McMaster was very funny on the panel yesterday. Quite a distraction when negotiating Auckland rush hour traffic.


  2. pdm says:

    I have always found that the greatest ability of sheep is to find the weakest spot in any fence. Fix that and they move on to the next week point and once one goes through the rest follow.


  3. JC says:

    “Anyone for maaastermind?”

    Oh Gawd!



  4. gravedodger says:

    The sheep is the butt of much ignorant perception, some observations.
    How quick do they respond to the call when one finds the weakness in the break fence.
    The ability to find the best site for safe birth in extreme weather, a trait that was in danger of being lost with shepherds interfering and saving the stupid.
    The way they respond to their historical enemy the wolf, now a dog.
    The memory pattern that causes difficulty in getting them near the “dip” when the smell is present even though they use the same race the rest of the year without a hitch for drenching, drafting, dagging etc.
    Their ability to differentiate between the tractor that brings winter food supplements from the other machines on the farm.
    Their engineering skills at track building to water, shelter etc in hill country. All early farm tracks followed the lead provided by the humble sheep track for best grade, best aspect and avoiding wet areas.
    Their amazing sense of time and approaching weather.
    Imho sheep will avoid an obstacle or hole with amazing skill unless in stampede mode and then some additional pressure from man or dog is usually the difference, humans have not done too well in stadia disasters have they.
    An inherent ability to manipulate diet for their wellbeing unless hunger and or grazing pressure precludes options.

    In nature they have some amazing intelligent abilities and most of their problems arise from the interference of the well intentioned shepherd with diet, fencing, concentration, etc,much like humans really.
    I wonder if sheep could watch their own tv news, would they often comment about those stupid humans, “you would think they would work it out, eh” (or maybe that would be ba).


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