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Sheep might be dumb ... but they're not stupid
Studies show that farmyard animals have a range of emotions and a sharp intelligence
Mark Townsend, environment correspondent
Sunday March 6, 2005
Cursed with a maddening cluck and a comic strut that would put John Cleese to shame, the chicken, headless or not, is thought by many to be one of the world's daftest animals. Yet new research reveals they are in fact rather clever.
Evidence that the humble hen can master complex tricks that would make most dog owners proud is among a wealth of research to be unveiled at the largest conference ever staged to investigate animal sentience.
The findings, seen by The Observer, offer compelling evidence that creatures caricatured as mindlessly dumb can feel emotions usually associated with humans, such as jealousy, love and loss. Some are crafty enough to hatch machiavellian plots worthy of those who stalk the corridors of Whitehall.
Sheep, ridiculed for a non-questioning herd mentality, possess a sharp sense of individuality and can recognise the faces of at least 10 people and 50 other sheep for at least two years. Scientists at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge also discovered that sheep react to facial expressions and, like humans, prefer a smile to a grimace.
Further studies which reinforce the notion that sheep are more like us than previously believed involved tests showing they mourn absent individuals. Scientists claim such findings are increasingly challenging the belief that farmyard animals have no 'sense of self', a notion that could have profound implications for the way Britain's creatures are farmed.
Pigs were similarly found to have a cerebral capacity beyond the popular preconception of a farm animal. Researchers at Bristol University found that pigs are masters of deceit, deliberately misleading other pigs if it would result in more food for themselves.
Chickens command an extraordinary degree of self-control over food. They are willing to delay gratification if they think a larger portion will be offered in due course.
Other research that threatens the longevity of the phrase 'headless chicken' found that the creatures boast a greater sense of spatial awareness than young children. In tests, chickens could learn tricks such as opening doors and navigating mazes with a speed usually the preserve of dogs and horses. These findings suggest that the character of Ginger, the sharp-witted chicken who leads her colleagues to escape from a farm in the 2000 film Chicken Run, may not be as ironic as its makers intended.
The results that may most perturb animal welfare groups are those that suggest chickens can feel pain. Tests found that those known to be experiencing some form of discomfort or lameness chose food laced with morphine when given the choice. By contrast, chickens who were fully fit chose feed that was not spiked with an analgesic.
Another creature similarly viewed by modern society as little more than a benign food source - the cow - is also shown to be an astute animal capable of solving riddles with an intellect more traditionally associated with an ape. Studies at Oxford University found that Betty, a Caledonian heifer, instinctively bent a piece of wire, using a gap in her food tray to create a hook that allowed her to scrape food from the bottom of a jar.
Scores of scientists and government delegates from 43 countries will attend the London conference in 10 days' time to discuss whether society's attitude to animals needs re-examining. They will also hear how wood mice build their own signposts, using sticks and stones to mark sites where food is abundant or marking short-cuts back to their burrow.
The reputation of parrots as purveyors of a broad vocabulary is also reinforced with one study documenting how a grey parrot mastered 1,000 words and learnt to communicate in a manner that would shame some British adults. Parrots have an intellect comparable to a five-year-old human, and the conference will hear how potential parrot owners must weigh up buying one as if they were adopting a 'small child'.
The conference comes at a time when the food industry is being forced to address mounting consumer concern over the structure of Britain's food industry and factory farming.
Among those speaking are officials from McDonald's and the World Bank's private sector arm, whose responsibilities include livestock investment. Leading theologians will also argue that Christian and Islamic faiths need to update their attitudes towards animals by bestowing an intrinsic value similar to that given to people.
Joyce D'Silva, chief executive of animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming Trust, which is organising the two-day summit, said: 'Government and business will have to address animal sentience because consumer concern about the treatment of animals will increasingly influence spending patterns in the coming decades.'
Tomorrow a cross-party parliamentary group on animal welfare will unveil its report into the use of animals in the development of vaccines for humans. The report, which will reopen the debate on the worth of vivisection, calls for the urgent development of new ways of testing vaccines without using animals. Currently 1.5 million animals are used in the European Union each year in the development of vaccines.
Not just parrot fashion ...
Fish are renowned for having a three-second memory; however, evidence suggests they can be highly manipulative and cultured.
Parrots, when shown two different objects, can use language to describe differences in their colour, shape and texture.
Sheep can carry the mental image of another sheep or person for two years.
Chickens feel intention and expectation and can tell people apart.
Pigs may use a sophisticated form of consciousness to deceive other animals for greater personal reward.
Elephants make graves by breaking branches to cover their dead colleagues. They have a large hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores mental maps.