Sheep are known to be stupid, but is this really true? People often think that because sheep have a strong flocking instinct, they have no ability to think independently. This is why human cult followers and the like are often referred to as “sheep“ or “sheeple“.
The fact of the matter is, sheep travel in flocks and stick together as a defense mechanism. This behavior has nothing to do with their intelligence. When casually observed in a peaceful pastoral setting, sheep actually exhibit the ability to solve problems, build lasting relationships, defend their friends and display signs of sorrow when those friends are taken off to slaughter.
In this article, we explore the intelligence of sheep. Read on to learn more on how smart are sheep.
What You'll Learn Today
How Do We Know Sheep Are Smart?
In addition to anecdotal evidence from sheep farmers, a number of experiments and tests have been conducted on sheep to determine just how smart they really are. Here are some of the interesting results:
1. Naturally, sheep like most animals, are able to learn and recognize their own names.
2. In Great Britain, on the Yorkshire Moors, sheep farmers report that sheep have learned how to get across cattle guards on their own. They don’t do it by carefully balancing on the bars with their tiny hooves. Instead, they lie down beside the cattle guards and then roll across them.
3. Sheep subjected to memory testing have been found to have the ability to remember and recognize familiar human faces. They also seem to be able to distinguish one sheep from another and to remember as many as fifty individuals for as long as two years.
4. Not only can sheep recognize life human faces, they can also recognize pictures of human faces. Furthermore, they can tell the difference between human facial expressions and like happy expressions better than sad or angry expressions.
Sheep Can Recognize Human Faces From Photographs
5. Australian researchers observing sheep in a pastoral setting have come to the conclusion that sheep are capable of developing knowledge about various plants and other foods so that they know which are good for them in which may be toxic. Self-medicating behavior has even been observed in sheep who are ill.
6. Australian scientists have put sheep through the same maze testing that’s often used to test the intelligence of rodents and primates. They found that sheep learn quickly and improve their maze navigating skills from one test to another. They seem to have superb spatial memory, and they are able to remember what they have learned for at least six weeks.
7. Scientists using an Icelandic breed of sheep called leader sheep as research subjects for studying Huntington’s disease tested sheep in the same way that humans with Huntington’s are tested. They found that the sheep exhibited advanced learning capabilities and were able to meet the challenges presented to them successfully.
8. Neurological researchers have found that the construction of a sheep’s brain lends itself to the ability to feel emotions, and indeed, sheep have been observed to feel a wide range of emotions including happiness, sorrow, boredom, fear and anger.
9. Sheep are able to grasp some symbolic meaning. For example, researchers tried presenting several different colors of buckets at feeding time, always putting the food in the same colored bucket. Sheep very quickly learned not to check the buckets of different colors but to go straight to the buckets that always had food. Then researchers change the experiment and used shapes to identify the buckets with food. The test subjects were able to make the necessary adjustments to learn to recognize the symbol which meant that the bucket contained food.
Are Sheep Smarter Than Other Farm Animals?
Are sheep smarter than dogs? Are they smarter than goats or cows? It’s a really difficult question to which you won’t find a definite answer.
The answer to some extent depends also on how you define ‘intelligence’ in animals. Most farmers would say ‘No’ (ok maybe excluding cows), with dogs and goats being considered generally to be more intelligent.
However, it’s not unusual to find an individual sheep in a farm that is much smarter than a goat. So, who knows…
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, sheep know each other, not only by scent and sound, but also by sight. They are able to recognize the faces of their flock-mates and even the faces of other animals and humans from photographs, even when the photograph is of the subject in question at a different age or in an unfamiliar setting.
Sheep have been shown to “catch feelings” and pick up on the general mood of a setting. In very stressful situations, they appear to lose hope and become unwilling to attempt tasks that they had previously completed easily.
Yes, sheep are able to do things like sort objects by shape and color. They are capable of learning rules applied to activities. They are also able to learn new tasks passively by simply watching one another.
Sheep have excellent memories. They can remember not only people, but also dozens of individual sheep. They have been seen to show signs of recognition for animals and people whom they have not seen for years.
Cambridge University researchers say that sheep can recognize the facial expressions indicating human emotion and that they show definite preference for relaxed or smiling expressions over stressed or angry expressions.
There’s More To Sheep Than We’ve Realized!
Clearly, the idea that sheep are stupid and helpless is completely wrong. As with most animals and people, the amount of intelligence displayed by the individual is often equal to the expectations of the observer. If you want to learn more interesting facts about sheep, read our article about why shepherds put oil on sheep.