Sheep have a reputation for being incredibly stupid creatures. I’m not sure how this belief gained such a foothold, but I frequently hear it from people — even my vet. Yet my experience with my own flock and those of others has taught me that sheep are far from stupid. At times, they can be incredibly smart — at least about those things that matter to them!
Studies show that sheep are very good at recognizing faces of their fellow flockmates and of the human beings in their lives. In fact, they not only recognize faces but can remember those faces for years, responding to them as friend or foe based on their previous experience. One study showed that after one negative experience with a human being, sheep responded fearfully to that person even after a five-year absence! I think that’s pretty incredible.
There is no doubt that our flock recognizes me as a friend, even to the point that some of the ewes will come to me when things go awry, knowing that I will make things better. A number of them will walk with me as I look over the flock or will rub against me, asking for a head scratch as I pause in my work. Rick and our farm helper, Seth, both get a similar greeting, although probably to a lesser degree. Rick and Seth often bring food or check over the flock when I cannot do it myself, so they, too, are associated in the minds of our sheep with good things. Other human beings are viewed much more suspiciously, sending the flock in the opposite direction as they approach. After all, sheep are prey animals and humans are predators. Although my flock is willing to set this dynamic aside for proven friends — Rich, Seth, and I — even a single strangers is seen as a threat.
If any of the three of us pair up, however, we are immediately suspect. My sheep friends know that when I am accompanied by Rick or Seth — or if the two of them come out together — we are not likely there to simply enjoy the peace of the flock. It’s much more likely that we have work to accomplish, and it probably involves catching sheep (for which we need two people: a holder and a worker). When the sheep see two or three of us come into the flock together, they know we’re there to change coats, trim hooves, or carry out any number of other activities in which our sheep are less than eager participants. Our appearance together generally sends them moving in the opposite direction, in spite of the fact that they like each of us individually!
Yet a bigger group of people will, surprisingly, shift us back into friendship mode. When I come out to the flock with a group of three or more other people, it’s most often with a group of fledgling shepherds — people looking to buy a small flock — and in that situation, we generally come bearing treats. The flock knows this, so when they see us approaching, they are once again much less suspicious. There are a small number of older ewes who are so curious about what we might be bringing that they’ll immediately move in our direction. Seeing that small group begin to move will then give confidence to some of the others, who also move towards us. In a very short time, the entire ewe flock surrounds us, eager to see what treats we might have to offer.
Friend or foe, safety or danger is a complicated thing when it comes to a flock of sheep. It is heavily dependent on the remembered experiences of each of the members of the flock — and they learn from each other, with the youngest flock members looking to their elders to determine the degree of danger in any new situation. From the human predatory standpoint, I suppose their behavior can look “stupid” — but when you begin to look at it from the sheep’s view, it becomes obvious that their reactions are the result of remembering and factoring in many seemingly small details to analyze a current situation. Since they are sheep, not human, they will of course respond from their perspective and not ours.