Are sheep smart? Can the answer surprise you?

OK, let’s try to separate facts from fiction.

In our culture sheep are considered low in intelligence, and even downright stupid. Does anyone remember George Washington’s declaration? “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Even today in Urban Dictionary to be called “a sheep” is to be someone who mindlessly follows other people’s orders.

Sheep are complex and sensitive animals with many traits pointing to their high intelligence. Contrary to popular belief, sheep are quite smart and intelligent. They are capable of problem-solving and many scientists are placing them on a similar IQ level as cattle and on a nearly similar level as pigs.

Sheep are neither dull-minded nor are they lacking uniqueness and especially independence in their desires and in their personalities. They care about their own lives. They are complex, intelligent, individualistic, social, and feeling individuals.

There are many online examples that can help us conclude that sheep are smart. From various farmers describing how their sheep figured out how to get over cattle grids to how they manage dog doors or even lead humans to other distressed animals and in that way save other animal’s lives.

Well, then why are they considered stupid you might ask? I think that they are just especially selective in applying their smarts. They are certainly not stupid in all ways. We can be thankful that they aren’t even more clumsy and full of misdemeanors. and that they don’t tangle themselves into everything.

It seems sheep are not so stupid after all

As mentioned above, the popular stereotype that sheep are unintelligent, docile, passive, and timid remains even today. Why do people deliberately misrepresent sheep? To make it easier for us to prey upon them. So, let’s correct our view of these highly intelligent animals.

Let’s treat sheep as what they are, individuals that possess complex emotions, interesting family lives, and individual interests. Let’s not just treat them as useful resources.

Sheep are on par with many other mammals, including humans, when it comes to certain cognitive abilities, emotions, and personalities.

This knowledge doesn’t have to make us feel uncomfortable when eating a lamb or mutton or wearing a product made of sheep fleece. But, we’re obligated to treat them as subjects and not as objects.

When people think of sheep flocking instinct they mostly regard it as a sign of sheep dumbness. It’s actually a community-based survival mechanism. Sheep know that their strength is in numbers. They know that their comfort is improved and survival is more likely in a group rather than as an individual. This actually seems like a good lesson for all of us.


Studies that confirm claim that sheep are smart

A great study was done by professor Jennifer Morton and Dr. Laura Avanzo from Cambridge University in the early 2010s. The results of those two neurologists were great for sheep, even stunning.

They exposed animals and people to the same tests. The first experiment exposed all of them to two buckets. One yellow and one blue bucket. Only the yellow bucket contained food. Sheep needed seven iterations to recognize the pattern that food was only in the yellow one. It took them the same time as humans, mice, and monkeys.

In the second experiment, food was put into a blue bucket. Sheep re-learned that new pattern slightly slower than humans, and on par with mice and monkeys.

In the third experiment, colours became irrelevant and only shapes of buckets mattered. Buckets could still be blue or yellow, and they were shaped like a square or were round. Square buckets in blue or yellow colour contained food. Round buckets in blue or yellow were empty. It took sheep 32 iterations to finally conclude that colour didn’t matter anymore. It took humans the same amount of tries. Only monkeys were faster than sheep. Mice were not smart enough to figure it out.

Another study was done in 2001 by Dr. Keith Kendrick of Babraham Institute, Cambridge. The results for sheep were great again.

In the study, sheep were exposed to 25 pairs of photographs of sheep-faces. If the sheep recognized the correct sheep, they got a reward, otherwise, they got nothing. It took 30 tries for sheep to recognize 50 faces with 80% accuracy.

In the next part of the same study, photographs were changed to profile view of the sheep. Even though sheep have never before seen that profile view, they were able to recognize correct faces with stunning accuracy. I believe even my four-year-old niece would have great trouble dealing with this task.

Dr. Kendrick’s conclusion was that sheep can remember at least 50 individual sheep and humans for at least two years. Sheep do this by using a part of the brain and similar neural process that humans use. They have extremely sophisticated face recognition abilities. They can also interpret emotions on the faces of other sheep. The study found they prefer a smile to a frown.

Let’s take a look at another study where sheep had passed with flying colors. Dr. Caroline Lee from CSIRO Animal Behaviour and Welfare Team, Australia concluded her own sheep research.

In her trial, sheep had to navigate through complex mazes. Some of the sheep needed only three tries to navigate the maze without one single mistake. It seemed like they had memorized them completely. There was even one special sheep that finished the maze in 12 seconds. Dr. Lee concluded that that result would probably best most humans.

Veissier, Boissy, Désiré, Greiveldinger, et al from France confirmed in separate research that sheep have a wide range of emotions and emotional responses. Emotions ranged from despair, boredom, happiness to anger.

The same research has also shown that sheep have individual personalities, e.g. they can be bold or shy. If you take the time to discover who’s who in the sheep herd, and not just look at the herd as a simple-minded cohesive unit, you can find that its complexity is created by individual sheep and their relationships and interactions.

Thelma Rowell, University of California, Berkeley found in her study that sheep have complex social systems. She observed rams for three years. What she discovered is that rams establish close and long term friendships. Rams even looked out for one another in troubled and distressing times.

In one study done in 2015 by Dr. McBride sheep have shown some sense of self. Sheep have passed two out of the three most common steps in mirror engagement. Sheep have shown exploration and contingency. They didn’t show self-directed behavior. McBride was testing 29 sheep and tried to find out if they could use a mirror to find hidden food in a maze. Sheep have shown exploration actions, many of them presented repetitive head movements that could be interpreted as contingency-checking behavior. Unfortunately, none of them were able to use the mirror to find hidden food.

I would suggest the following read to continue with the more in-depth summary of sheep cognitive, emotion, personality, and social complexity studies.

Sheep know how to self medicate

There have been earlier mentions of curious sheep behavior that makes them look out for plants that they know will alleviate their symptoms. Also, there is also a record that shows that sheep know what nutrients they are missing.

There is also one research that suggests that sheep know how to select exactly the right medicine to treat themselves. The research was done by biologists at Utah University. Researchers gave lambs mild poisons mixed with food. This made them slightly unwell. Researchers then gave them to eat something that would make them feel better. Lambs that went through this learning process were the only ones that went for the cure again later when they were made unwell and offered multiple cure choices. This preference for the cure lasted for almost half a year.


Funny story about smart sheep from England

When researching this topic I came upon an interesting story from British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that can demonstrate even further how sheep are smart.

It seems that in July of 2004 sheep had been troubling, even terrorizing people in the Yorkshire Moors (north-eastern part of England). BBC reported that they had been destroying and eating off people’s gardens at night. Sheep didn’t stop there, it seems they even got to the local graveyard and grazed everything in it.

Angry homeowners set up special metal barricades with very wide slots throughout them. People laid those barricades over ditches across the roads that were leading into their town. Cars could pass over the metal barricades, but hoofed animals would have a lot of problems when trying to cross them.

Barricades worked, but not for long. Sheep found out that they could just lay down next to barricades and then roll across them, graze everything, chomp on all the flowers, visit the graveyard, then roll back across the barricades again. It seems that nothing can stand in between sheep and those lovely flower beds.

On a side note, you can often stumble upon a story about some random music festival being canceled because of sheep droppings.

One personal example of smart sheep

At my grandfather’s farm, there was a locking headgate mechanism for sheep. As sheep heads for the grain that you have placed in a feeder, you pull a lever and lock her head in and thus contain her for examination or treatment application.

Well, most of his sheep had no problem with that, with just one notable exception. I’ve tried to remember the name of that sheep, but with no luck. Let’s call her Smartie. Smartie always went for the laid-out food, no problems there, but if you just twitched a muscle in a lever direction, she was gone in a blink of an eye. She was one freedom-loving sheep, can’t say otherwise.

Smart sheep final thoughts

Sheep are anything but stupid. A person who believes sheep are stupid has most probably been outwitted by one of them at some time. And of course, the intelligence of sheep is obvious to all those who take the time to listen to them.