The Secret Life of Sheep

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The other day I witnessed a display of sheep affection. A potato field has been given over to a flock of sheep, and there at the edge two ewes stood nose to muzzle in a lingering moment of closeness. They were in no hurry to move on, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I had to head home, and left the sheep to their togetherness. Perhaps they are there still. Then there was the fun-loving sheep today, running alongside the car and shaking its head with that girl-in-a-shampoo-ad motion. I wondered if it had a brain injury, sadly, or or if it were the ‘wild child’ of the flock.

We like to think of sheep as all the same, assume we know ‘the character of sheep’, that there is nothing more to tell. But these are not the only times I have found sheep betraying their conventional image. No longer are they docile and stupid in my mind, but misunderstood. In fact, I think they have the intelligence to portray themselves as one thing, giving themselves a cover to be something altogether different.

Have you seen the clip of sheep bounding along a line of hay bales? These are no ordinary bales, but between five and seven feet in diameter, and the sheep jump aboard like they are well-practiced – except this time Joe Blogs has his video camera. A momentary slip in the usual sheep-are-trustworthy cover, but then even phones film these days. I think the sheep can be forgiven for not noticing, especially as the bales had been laid out in such a tempting fashion.

My sheep suspicion has led me into a little research and my theories have been confirmed. A report in the National Geographic (2001) tells of the Cambridge Babraham Institute discovery that sheep can identify faces (fifty,to be precise) and remember them for two years or more. I wish they would give me the training. Then there are sheep that tackle mazes. In 1925 Howard S. Liddell wrote up his study, ‘The Behaviour of Sheep and Goats in Learning a Simple Maze’, research that has been tested more recently in Australia. Closer to home, sheep in the Yorkshire Moors have learnt how to roll over metal cattle grids and so avail themselves of the locals’ garden produce. You have to admire them for it.

I wonder if our concept of well-behaved, law abiding sheep comes from the Biblical view of them – ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ – and all those pastoral scenes in which sheep are of course still. How many of us have bothered to watch them long enough to see what they really get up to? They just look so darned innocent, a little vacant, and let’s be honest, dim.

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