I often hear from people that sheep are dumb creatures – too stupid to bother with. This generally comes from people who once had sheep themselves – or perhaps their parents had them when they were young – and I usually then get too hear a tale in which the sheep failed to perform some seemingly simple task for the shepherd. Whatever it is that they failed to do properly is usually one of a very short list – and is most often something like staying in a home pasture that isn’t well fenced. Of course, they should know to stay home! I usually end up thinking that the sheep in the story were the smart ones, figuring out how to get out of a fenced field where the grazing is poor and hightailing it over to the neighbor’s field that has not yet been mowed or grazed. I find that the usual problem is that these people tend to want the sheep to think like we do, instead of thinking like sheep. Yet, to respect the animal, we must respect their way of thinking, too. Of course they will escape to better grazing if they can find a way! If you were sitting in a diner in which you knew they served sub-par food, wouldn’t you get up and leave for the gourmet restaurant next door?
Having said that, smart sheep are not necessarily a good thing! My flock has a variety of sheep with various mental abilities and all have different personalities – and although the smarter sheep are much more entertaining to watch, they are also more trouble. For example, it is funny and interesting to watch certain of my ewes play with the gate latches when they get bored. You can often hear the click-click-click of the latch pin dropping in the housing as one or more ewes play with this very interesting “toy” – and watching them do this with their very nimble lips can be entertaining as you wile away time filling water tanks or other such tasks. Yet, it is not so fun nor is it so entertaining when you realize that the sheep have opened the gate and made off for the neighbor’s front lawn! Smart is not always good when it comes to sheep.
There are some generalizations to be made about which of our sheep are smarter than others, but keep in mind that all generalizations have their exceptions. In general, the Romeldales are smarter than the Romneys, the moorit-based (tan/brown) are smarter than the black-based (gray/black), and any of the colored sheep are smarter than the whites. Most people tell me they want smart sheep, but in reality, most people are actually really happy with dumb sheep. Dumb sheep don’t challenge their surroundings, don’t really like to escape, and don’t take things out of pockets, steal tools, or become annoying in these many other ways that smart sheep tend to enjoy.
The whole reason for this blog comes from my observations this afternoon of one of our ewe lambs, Qash. She is the white Romeldale grand-daughter of our ewe January, and from her behavior today, I now believe that she will be one of the smart ones in our flock as she matures. When looking to my generalizations above, she does fit the expected to a degree: she is moorit and not black-based – but she is white like her mother and grandmother. I also like that she has a very expressive face – every thought that goes through her head seems to be expressed by her face and behavior.
When I saw her this afternoon, the entire flock was out on the lawn to finish the grazing season. She was under the pine trees behind the house, and as I glanced out the back window, I noticed that she was standing there under the trees, cudding, while the rest of the flock was mostly recumbent in their cudding – so she caught my eye. As I watched, I could see her look up above her head at the evergreens slowly moving in the breeze. Our sheep very much like evergreen boughs and I thought she might try to stand on her hind legs to attempt to reach the lower branches. She did not – although she looked like she was going to pull up onto her back legs, the thought was fleeting as she obviously realized that she could not reach them that way.
Qash then walked forward coming downhill a bit where the branches are just a little lower to the ground – possibly hoping that this might get her within reach. As she stood there looking at the lower branches, she once again looked as if she might pull back up onto her back legs, but again, she must have realized that even here, the branches were too high. She then walked just a step or two further and came to Koko, who was lying underneath the pine trees. Her eyes opened wide as she first surveyed Koko’s back and then up to the lowest branch above – and then back down to stare at Koko’s back. I chuckled as I realized that she was sizing up Koko as a step-stool to help her get some height – but even with Koko under her, Qash was still too short, and it wasn’t long before she was trying to find another way.
It took a while, but eventually Qash did get her nibble of evergreens. I had long since given up on watching Qash and her evergreen project, going back to straightening up the house. As I passed the back window yet again, I happened to glance out at the sheep under the pine trees and noticed our llama Martin enjoying a bit of evergreen, having pulled one of the lower branches down to his level. That branch was longer than he realized, however, and at the far end (which was much closer to the ground than what a llama would require) stood Qash, having grabbed at the green tips when Martin had pulled the branch down. Now that she had a hold of that branch, there was no way she was letting go until she had her fill or the branch she could reach was stripped. With every bite, she held on, not wanting to lose her prize. And, on her very expressive face, I seemed to see a self-satisfied smile; she had learned a new trick to add to her “smart sheep” repertoire – one that pays off in pine needles!