Sheep smart, farmers smarter

February 22, 2011

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?

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