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Scientists say sheep are brighter than we thought. But they don't know the
half of it..
They jumped from the trailer bright-eyed, woolly and eager to explore every
inch of our steep, gorsy Exmoor grassland. On a winter�s day, my wife and I had
taken delivery of our new mini-flock of the local horned sheep.
Not long afterwards our village was plunged into an Arctic winter as a biting
cold air mass swept across Britain.
'Clever': Neuroscientists now say sheep are cleverer than we often give them
As we looked out across a snowy landscape with drifts almost to the hedge tops,
we feared the worst. Weighed down with shovels and bales of hay, we set out
across the frozen fields to dig them out of whatever corner they�d been trapped
We needn�t have worried. We found them warm and dry in the middle of a small
patch of gorse bushes that had been covered by the drifting snow and turned into
a sort of rough-hewn igloo.
Inside they were happily chewing the cud, having found plenty of fresh grazing
around the fringes of their natural shelter.
Over the years since then, I�ve gained nothing but respect for the ability of
these often maligned animals to exploit their environment for their own survival
The news this weekend that sheep are far from being the dim-witted creatures of
popular culture came as no surprise to us.
Scientists at Cambridge University have found that when it comes to brainpower,
they�re the equal of rodents, monkeys and, in some tests, even humans.
Apparently, they possess an advanced capacity for learning and can map out their
According to the head of the study � neuroscientist Professor Jenny Morton �
sheep can perform cognitive tasks that no other large animals can manage apart
Professor Morton used differently coloured buckets to see how long it would
take a flock of Welsh mountain sheep to work out that they could find food in
the same coloured bucket each time. The sheep learned this in the same amount of
time it would take monkeys � or even humans � to do comparable tests.
In more difficult tests, coloured shapes were used to indicate the presence of
food. While the sheep took 32 attempts to understand the new rules, they did
master the task � unlike animals such as mice and rats, which cannot perform
such feats of memory.
I could have told them that. On our smallholding, with its hedge banks, trees
and tiny paddocks, our little flock know exactly where to go in any particular
set of weather conditions.
When the weather comes in wet and windy from the South-west, they know the
hedges to lie under, and the walls to stand behind when there�s an icy blast
from the North.
In summer, when the sun beats down on our exposed hillside, they know the
shadiest places to gather at any hour of the day from sunrise to sunset.
In warm humid conditions, when flies can become troublesome, they lie in the
open, well away from the thickets that harbour the nuisance. George Orwell�s
Animal Farm portrays sheep as easily-led and of low intelligence. It�s an idea
peddled in much of today�s popular culture.
Sheep don't queue: But they do have to brave wintry conditions. Graham Harvey
says they know the best walls to shelter behind
I get particularly incensed by the TV ad of a travel website that shows sheep
stupidly queuing at a station ticket office. In reality the instinct of sheep to
bunch together and move as a flock is an intelligent and effective response to
These are prey animals, ill-equipped to defend themselves against attack. On
their own, they are easily picked off by predators such as dogs. But tightly
packed together, they�re much harder to deal with.
Even in farming circles sheep can get a bad press. There�s a particularly
unpleasant saying I�ve occasionally heard from farmers � usually those who don�t
keep them: �The only thing a sheep�s good at is dying.�
It�s a slander that says more about the inadequacies of the human than the
When they�re stocked too heavily on the same piece of grassland, sheep can build
up dangerous levels of parasitic worms. So the flock fails to thrive and animals
die until there�s a healthier balance between the animal and the parasite.
Farmers with far too many sheep for the available ground usually rely on
chemical wormers to keep the parasite under control. We�ve found that sheep are
clever enough to medicate themselves with plants and herbs if provided with the
In our little fields � which have never been sprayed with chemicals � there are
a wide range of wild flowers and herbs, allowing the animals a measure of choice
over what they eat.
For example, in summer, the pastures are studded with a low-growing leguminous
plant with yellow and orange flowers. It�s officially known as bird�s-foot
trefoil, but the locals call it eggs-and-bacon. In the old herbal remedies, the
plant is said to have anti-worm properties.
All I know is our sheep make a beeline for it and eat all they can. And although
they�re quite heavily stocked on our smallholding, they remain healthy and
And at certain times of the year our sheep will nibble at stinging nettles,
which are known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
At other times they�ll browse on the leaves of hedge plants. Established hedge
species such as blackthorn and ash tend to contain higher levels of many
minerals than pasture grasses.
I�m convinced our sheep know all they need to about healthy eating and balanced
nutrition. Though they�re now mostly nine years old � not a bad age for sheep �
we�ve never needed to call the vet.
One of our sheep, Spotty, is even smart enough to unlatch the gate when the
grass is getting low and it�s time to move onto the next paddock.
I�m pretty sure they could all do it if they needed to. But they�re clever
enough to leave it to Spotty, as long as he�s willing to do it.
Researchers in the Cambridge study found that cattle grids proved no obstacle to
sheep. They soon found a way of getting across � by rolling on their
Apparently, it is an amazing sight, like soldiers tackling an assault course.
The other impressive characteristic of sheep is their phenomenal memory.
We rarely offer our flock energy-rich sheep nuts. But for three days last
winter, the weather was bad enough for me to take them a few nuts in a plastic
Several months later in the summer heat, we had to move the flock to a
stream-side field where there was plenty of green grass. After a few weeks, the
rain had come and it was time to move the sheep back.
I put a few nuts in a plastic bucket and, from the edge of their summer grazing,
shook it once. Instantly they were at my side, clamouring for a snack. As I
shook the bucket in front of them � recreating the sound they�d heard months
earlier � they followed along the track back to their familiar field.
Sheep dull-witted? It�s we who have got things to learn.